In Cancun modesty is prized

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After being mistreated and ignored, the 16th Conference of Parties to the UN convention on Climate Change recently concluded in Cancun, seems to have been a success well above expectations. The credit goes especially to the organizers, and in particular to the diplomatic skills of the Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, who has created consensus among many countries, with the exception of Bolivia. This final showdown is quite different from the incompetence of her Danish colleagues last year, which had caused the Copenhagen agreement to be implemented but not ratified by Member States of the Convention. After this well-deserved recognition, however, the question remains as to what is contained in the text and how it differs from the one of Copenhagen. Let's therefore examine the 4 main points:

  1. Cancun has confirmed its commitment to the voluntary emission reductions contained in the Copenhagen Accord. As the European Commission was hoping, the discussion on the future of the international Kyoto Protocol expiring in 2012, has instead been postponed to next year.
  2. Also confirmed are the commitments on deforestation and technology transfer, with funds and verification protocols for the first and collaborations and research centers for the second.
  3. The issue of funding for climate also remains central, with funding in the short term (until 2012) of 30 billion and for the long term (up to 2020) tending to 100 billion per year. This green fund will be managed by the World Bank, and will provide resources for mitigation and adaptation in addition to the existing ones, even though this is a vague concept, particularly with regard to the confusion between adaptation and development assistance.
  4. An agreement on transparency and monitorability of commitments undertaken, a key condition (and especially dear to the U.S.) to assess progress towards a myriad of different commitments.

Except for the last point, in addition to the aforementioned formal aspects, the Cancun conference has confirmed and crystallized the results of Copenhagen. This shows how the result of a year ago was wrongly played down, due to the exaggerated expectations (and the media impact of the heads of state), rather than for its content. Back to its role as a (high level) round table, which gives guidelines for the many meetings that are held throughout the year, the "boring" COP managed instead to bring home what just a year ago had seemed like an insignificant result.

The picture though is still very doubtful. The fundamental issue concerning the ambition and credibility of the voluntary commitments to reduce emissions is still open. As for the first aspect, if accomplished, the commitments of Copenhagen / Cancun could determine a non negligible reduction in emissions, bringing them back in 2020 to the 2005 levels. The second, however, remains a sore point. Almost all the commitments are conditional on the actions of the other countries, particularly the sizable ones, to avoid the risk of running alone. This coordination problem, known as "free riding" in fact reduces the credibility of individual actions, and makes unlikely the drafting of protocols that are inclusive and ambitious. At least in this regard, economists have guessed right, by forecasting for more than ten years the difficulties in reaching international agreements for the climate that are stable and effective.iii

Therefore, if, on one hand, expectations of a post-Kyoto shall be the focus of discussion again, on the other,in Durban next year there will be no big celebration for the 20 years since the meeting in Rio in 1992, which marked the historic political acknowledgment of the problem of climate change. Let's hope therefore in the lower profile, and that negotiators ensure that at least the last three points above are met. This would be an important first step, and consistent with current national interests. For the future, innovation, technology, research, and the hope for an American and Chinese leadership.

1. The full text is downloadable here
2. See for example the recent UNEP report
3.For example Carraro e Siniscalco, 1992, Journal of Public Economics, and much of the research work in FEEM (

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