The Climate Deal That Failed Us

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Think Forward

The Climate Deal That Failed Us

by
Shefali Sharma

“History will be the judge of what has happened in Cancun.” These are the last lines of the Bolivian Government’s press release yesterday about the outcome of the climate negotiations here in Cancun. The talks ended here today after two weeks of negotiations by a 192 governments. It is a deal that will be remembered by our future generations as one that killed the climate treaty, unless we radically change course.

Witnessing standing ovations and applause in the closing hours over negotiating texts that basically kill the Kyoto Protocol and make emissions reductions voluntary for all governments fills me with a profound sense of disillusionment (you can view the final plenaries here). Disillusionment at the utter lack of leadership exhibited by virtually every government except Bolivia and disillusionment at the role that many environmental and development groups played in legitimizing these governments’ actions.

The compromise arrived at Cancun was a coup for the United States. The U.S. came in with nothing to offer in terms of binding commitments to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and yet managed to effectively push for voluntary targets. The source of these targets is the “Copenhagen Accord” that President Obama negotiated by cornering a few key countries in a back room in the last hours of the climate negotiations a year ago. 

“There is only one way to measure the success of a climate agreement, and that is based on whether or not it will effectively reduce emissions to prevent runaway climate change. This text clearly fails, as it could allow global temperatures to increase by more than 4 degrees, a level disastrous for humanity,” says Bolivia.

Sadly, Bolivia was set up as the scapegoat at the meeting—portrayed as the only country standing in the way of multilateralism and progress on a climate deal. “The perfect is the enemy of the good,” they said. 

Manufacturing Consensus
This scapegoating is nothing new. I have witnessed it in the WTO where governments, under great pressure by powerful countries like the United States and the EU, are too afraid to speak out or too keen to be seen as constructive actors on the geopolitical theater. And theater it was last night—as country after country—applauded the President of the COP, for her “open and transparent” process and a successful outcome. Yet in reality, we all knew that the deal had been negotiated behind closed doors by a handful of countries. At times, there were 50 countries in a room somewhere in the conference complex. 

But we did not know where and we did not know what they were negotiating. Civil society, unlike other UN negotiations, was not allowed in any of the drafting groups. And what governments drafted did not even seem to appear in the texts crafted by the Chairs of the two negotiating tracks of the climate talks.

In the closing hours of the COP, Bolivia made strong statements that it did not agree to the outcome and that there was no consensus. In the UN, all countries must agree and have “consensus” before a treaty or a deal is adopted. In Cancun, the deal was ceremoniously gaveled as agreed.

For civil society organizations, Cancun must be a wake up call for serious reflection. How have we been complicit in an outcome that has ultimately not respected the science of global warming? Worse still, some have applauded an outcome that lets industrialized countries off the hook from legally binding and mandatory targets to reduce GHGs—something they agreed to when they signed the Kyoto Protocol. 
The 20th anniversary of the birth of the Climate Treaty is 2012 and the end of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Let's ensure that by the time we get there, we have managed to shift the fundamental elements of what was agreed here in Cancun towards a much more accountable framework to address climate change.  

Shefali Sharma is Senior Program Officer at IATP and blogged from Cancun the day after the UN climate talks concluded.

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