Cancun Postscript: Leadership Key For Climate Progress

In this guest post: Some reflections on the recently concluded UN climate talks  from Louis Blumberg, who heads the California Climate Change Team for The Nature Conservancy.

Cancun provided glimmers of what could be if nations put their minds to it

By Louis Blumberg

Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico – I stood up – every one stood up – and applauded loudly for three minutes – twice!  Patricia Espinosa, President of the UN Climate Change Conference walked into the cavernous hall Friday night, calmly took her place at the head table and the place went wild.  The 1500+ people (it could have been 2500) spontaneously gave her a standing ovation and there were still about six  more hours of work to come.

Joining colleagues from the Nature Conservancy and about 9,000 others from 194 countries, we were in Cancun to shape the foundation of what could become a comprehensive, legally binding treaty to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius and avoid major climate disruption.  Last year’s effort in Copenhagen had provided little success and expectations for Cancun were low.  However after two weeks of talks, a balanced package of decisions was reached for a few key issues – like the role of preventing deforestation – and set the stage for completion of the treaty next year in South Africa, potentially.

The standing ovations signaled the overwhelming support Espinosa had established over the two weeks.  In this penultimate session, almost every country representative praised the transparent and inclusive way she had run the conference.  Most were ready to accept the draft document she had assembled “as is,” with no further debate.  But in deference to the five or six countries that asked for more changes, at midnight she called for a last round of committee work with the goal of finishing by dawn.  When the full group reassembled around two a.m., Bolivia was alone in objecting.  Flexing her considerable mojo, Espinosa said that the will of 193 nations could not be denied, that consensus did not mean unanimity and she declared the document official.   As widely reported, it was this type of leadership by Mexico throughout that produced the positive result.

I was there working to promote nature-based solutions to climate change, including reducing emissions by stopping deforestation and deploying nature to help people and wildlife adapt to the impacts of climate change.  Progress was made in both of these priorities.  For example, the decision in Cancun establishes a goal for ending deforestation (but no date) and allows for state programs on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation – known as REDD+ – to be folded into national programs.

The Cancun Agreement also made progress on the issue of adaptation – helping people, especially those in the developing world most at risk — survive climate change.  It established a framework for planning, provides a  new fund  for the most vulnerable countries, and includes a strong role for protecting ecosystems and sustainable management of natural resources.

Another focus of my work Cancun revolved around promoting the progress that California has made in integrating nature into its climate change program.  Along with state officials and others, we highlighted the important work underway by states in the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Africa to collaborate on actions to reduce emissions from forest loss.  This state-to-state or “sub-national” activity reduces emissions now and motivates national leaders to act.  Given the lack of action in the US Congress, sub-national action has garnered increased attention since Copenhagen.

I spoke at a special event about progress in California to establish a forest carbon market in California’s climate program under AB 32, the 2006 law successfully defended in the overwhelming defeat of Prop 23 in last month’s election.  I briefed representatives from the US State Department and Congress about sub-national action on forest protection globally, did media interviews including a roof-top spot for KQED-TV, and worked with TNC colleagues in Brazil and Mexico to support new state-level action in those countries including the launch of a Tri-Yucatan State climate plan in Mexico.   Long days, late nights, frustrating bus rides and erratic meals made the eight days challenging, but ultimately rewarding.

Sitting in this aluminum tube, headed home with my computer slammed into my chest, and admittedly generating greenhouse gas, I am heartened by the progress in Cancun yet still worried that the comprehensive, legally binding global treaty may not come in time.

For more on the Nature Conservancy’s work, see our Planet Change website.