U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing: in implementing the Cancun Agreements, the U.S. will be the focus of global attention

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On January 5, Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change, told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that the framework established by the Cancun Agreements signals a busy year for implementation of climate measures in 2011.  The Cancun Agreements hammered out what Pershing called a “balanced package” of steps toward the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s goal of avoiding dangerous climate change, including mitigation goals and a verification system, an adaptation framework, deforestation reduction, a funding mechanism, and a commitment to near-term and long-term climate financing for the least developed countries.

Pershing gave an overview of the progress made in global climate negotiations from the adoption of the UN Framework Convention in 1992 to the COP16 (16th Conference of the Parties) talks in Cancun, Mexico, in December 2010.  He argued that, in considering the state of the global negotiations, the incremental progress in global engagement made over the past twenty years is the appropriate frame for analysis.  He commented on the strength of the fundamental science underlying the negotiations, suggesting that recent research offers “nuance around the margins of how bad it will be.”

Pershing said that the Copenhagen talks of 2009 represented a profound paradigm shift in the negotiations.  Under the Kyoto Protocol, emissions obligations were allocated in a "top-down" fashion and were restricted to current member countries of the OECD.  In contrast, he said, the framework that came out of Copenhagen outlined a "bottom-up" approach in which countries could voluntarily take on actions suitable to their circumstances. Ultimately, this approach incorporated a much larger group of countries than those that made commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.  He said this change reflected the reality that the largest emitters are not prepared to commit to a binding top-down agreement.

Following the Copenhagen Accord, the Cancun Agreements of 2010 put together a package of bottom-up steps toward the Framework Convention’s goal of avoiding dangerous anthropogenic interference in the climate system.  Pershing identified the following key elements of the Agreements: a shared vision for a balanced package of mitigation, adaptation, finance, technology, and capacity building; a commitment to reducing emissions from destruction and degradation of forests (REDD); and substantive mechanisms for advancing these objectives.

Pershing said the “Adaptation Framework” is significant in its acknowledgement that, collectively, we cannot solve the climate problem before damages occur, especially in the least developed nations.  Efforts to adapt to inevitable climate change consequences are essential.

The Agreements established a Green Fund for disbursing climate funding to developing nations.  Pershing said there is a consensus that an alternative to the World Bank is needed as an appropriate funding vehicle.  The parties also agreed to a mobilization of $30 billion in “fast-start” public and private capital through 2012 to developing countries to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, and to mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020.  A technology mechanism will also be launched to assist with technology transfer from developed to least developed countries.

CSW Director Rick Piltz was recently asked on Al Jazeera English TV if it might be better to leave the U.S. out of these negotiations altogether.  Pershing answered a similar inquiry, saying, in effect, that without buy-in from both the U.S. and the major developing economies, a global, legally binding agreement will not be possible.  With that in mind, however, Pershing said that he does not anticipate a legally binding outcome in the 2011 COP17 talks in Durban, South Africa.

In response to a question about the significance of U.S. financing for a global agreement, given the collapse of U.S. climate legislation and with it a mechanism for raising funds, Pershing conceded that it is “an open question as to what Congress chooses to do” for near-term financing, but said that he believes the U.S. is on track to making an appropriate contribution.  It is not clear how this would happen.

With the amount of deficit demagoguery taking place in the U.S. Congress, it’s difficult to imagine a robust commitment to near-term financing making it through the appropriations process.  As Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones reported, four Senate Republicans have already sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opposing the “transfer of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to developing nations in the name of climate change.”  It’s only going to get worse.

Significant steps were undoubtedly taken in Cancun.  Confidence in the UN multilateral negotiating process was seen as revived by many observers.  The process did not run off the rails as it had looked like it might.  But it remains questionable whether bottom-up domestic deployment and support for international efforts, in the absence of binding emissions caps in the major emitting economies and guaranteed funding from the U.S. and other developed nations, can come anywhere near reaching the goal of limiting the global average warming to 2o C above the preindustrial level.  Commitments that have been made to date leave us very far from that goal.

Another year of diplomacy has gone by.  Speaking diplomatically and acknowledging the great complexity of the negotiating issues, the climate change problem still appears almost as intractable as ever.

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