What Cancun Means for China and the U.S.

The Cancun Agreements have been widely praised as a step forward for the international climate negotiating process to address climate change. In the run-up to this year’s meeting in Cancun there was a lot of concern about how the relationship between the United States and China would play out in the negotiations, and whether the competing interests of the world’s two largest emitters would be an impediment to progress. However, in these negotiations, there were improved relations– both in tone and engagement– between the United States and China.

As in any successful negotiation, both sides had to listen to and accommodate the other. In the Cancun Agreements, we see core issues for both countries were addressed, including greater transparency in reporting emissions data, the establishment of a “Green Climate Fund” to help mitigation and adaptation efforts of developing countries, and a preliminary structure for transferring clean technologies to developing countries.

For these meetings, at least, it seems that with the overall relationship in a complicated and difficult period, both the United States and China found it better to avoid confrontation.

In addition, we saw unprecedented efforts relating to the international negotiations by civil society groups to deepen engagement – the student-led effort that we reported earlier on ChinaFAQs, and the first meeting ever of US and Chinese NGOs at a COP are two good examples. Both countries’ officials also reached out to these civil society groups, briefing both domestic and international NGOs during the course of the negotiations.

The Western media also reported more openness from the Chinese delegation. This effort by China to engage the media with a pavilion and press staff had actually started at Copenhagen the year before, but China was on a rocky learning curve, and this year’s effort was clearly more effective.

Ultimately, agreements require trust and understanding, and these negotiations— both the formal and informal engagement – seems to have helped the two countries bridge some of their differences.

What were the core elements of an agreement that were in the interests of China and the USA?

Key issues for China

During the negotiations, China emphasized the elements that provide support for developing countries. While only some of these would benefit China itself, China showed that it could be an effective advocate for other developing country partners on some issues. For example, one of the key advancements in Cancun was the establishment of a new Green Climate Fund to support efforts by developing countries to adapt to climate change, reduce deforestation emissions and decarbonize their economies. Although China has stated it will not accept funding from this new entity, it was important to China that it was created for the developing country bloc.

For China itself, technology transfer and cooperation has been an absolute priority. The Cancun Agreements include the establishment of a new Technology Mechanism made up of a Technology Executive Committee and the Climate Technology Center and Network. In conversations with Chinese experts, we learned that China had been unsatisfied with the lack of specificity in the discussion of technology in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord and understands the clarification of these mechanisms as essential to promoting the worldwide development and deployment of clean technologies.

China also wanted to keep the structure of previous agreements intact. This includes both the Kyoto Protocol, with its specific mitigation targets for most developed countries (but not the United States, which is not a party) and the Bali Action Plan, adopted by all parties to the Climate Change Convention three years ago. The Chinese have seen the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, which is the current vehicle for specific targets from most developed countries, as essential to ensuring that developed countries reduce emissions effectively and that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” between developed and developing countries is preserved. The Protocol’s first “commitment period” actually ends in 2012, and thus the parties would need to take on new commitments for the Protocol to continue to have an effect. While the question of a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was not decided in Cancun, some steps were taken in that direction. In particular, the countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol agreed that the commitments they made in Copenhagen a year ago should be included under the Protocol, with an effort to convert them into Kyoto commitments in the near future.

The United States is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol, but in the Cancun Agreements it placed its Copenhagen target commitment into the overall decision under the Framework Convention. The structure of the agreements makes the developed country commitments more closely tied to the treaty structure and enables a review of the targets over time to determine whether the reductions are sufficient to protect the world from catastrophic climate change.

There are also key “transparency elements” in the agreement that were important for both China and the U.S., including a process to strengthen the reporting and review processes for the United States and the other developed countries that were not already under the Kyoto Protocol’s more rigorous requirements. Reporting is now not just on emissions, but also on the financing and technology commitments developed countries have made.

Key Issues for the United States

At the same time, the United States also achieved two of its major stated goals. Based on press briefings and well as US interventions it was clear that one of its primary objectives going into Cancun was a more robust transparency system for developing country actions, including China. Indeed, one of the major results of the Cancun agreements is to include transparency and accountability requirements for all countries. China and other developing countries have agreed to strengthen reporting on their mitigation actions, and to international consultation and analysis of these actions. This will include not just reporting on the list of mitigation actions they wish to undertake, as was presented in the Copenhagen Accord, but also a review of the “effect” of these actions and the domestic provisions and timeline for implementation of these actions.

All major emitters will now produce national communications and inventories, the traditional UNFCCC reporting tool, at least every four years, and for those countries with the capacity to do so, produce biennial reports as updates with information pertaining to their GHG emissions. Developing countries will undergo “international consultations and analysis” of those biennial reports in the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) “in a manner that is non-intrusive, non-punitive and respectful of national sovereignty.” There will also be analysis by technical experts which are now empowered to analyze a large range of information. Included in that list is information on mitigation actions and the greenhouse gas inventory as well as progress on implementation and information on domestic measurement reporting and verification (MRV) systems.

A secondary goal often cited in interventions and press reports of the United States is legal parity in how the pledges of the United States and China were incorporated into the Cancun Agreements (the United States pledge of a 17% emissions reduction below 2005 levels, and the Chinese carbon intensity reduction of 40-45% below 2005 levels). The US achieved this goal as well by having both developed and developing country pledges “taken note of” in the final decision text.

The issue of what the ultimate legal form of the agreement will be was not resolved in Cancun and will be discussed over the coming year in the lead-up to the next climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa. It will be very interesting to see how this evolves as this is where the greater question of legal parity emerges.

In effect, by getting down to work and finding the areas of agreement, China and the United States succeeded in helping craft a number of new mechanisms that will, hopefully, help provide support for developing country needs, promote new technologies, and track progress on emissions reductions, financing and technology.

There were many factors which made Cancun a success, but clearly a more productive and constructive engagement between the two largest emitters was one of them.

Photo by UN Climate Talks courtesy of an Attribution 2.0 Generic license.