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How US built consensus to get a deal it wanted

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Jan 15, 2011 | From the print edition

US machinations made everybody fall in line

imageFundamentally, there is no difference between the Copenhagen Accord of 2009 and the Cancun Agreement on Long-term Cooperative Action. Both turn the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on its head—all countries, rich and poor, have a common protocol under which they “pledge” their voluntary emissions reduction targets. Both pave the way for jettisoning the Kyoto Protocol, in which rich nations had binding obligations based on their historical responsibility for causing climate change.

Cancun has actually operationalised the Copenhagen Accord. Still, while Copenhagen was termed a disaster, Cancun is being celebrated as a success. Copenhagen was rejected because it was unilateralist, and Cancun became acceptable because of its multilateral process.

What happened in Cancun? What made the poorest and most vulnerable countries, who had vehemently opposed the Accord in 2009, to agree to the Cancun agreement? To understand this one has to understand what happened in Copenhagen and in the period between Copenhagen and Cancun.

It is important to understand that domestic politics of Kyoto-renegade US demanded a non-binding agreement with full and complete participation of countries like India and China. This meant that the US could not afford to continue with the two-track UNFCCC negotiations and needed a new agreement that had no legally binding emissions reduction obligations as well as brought India and China into the agreement. This was the genesis of the Copenhagen Accord.

At Copenhagen, though most countries were negotiating under UNFCCC’s two-track process, a group of countries, led by the US and assisted by the host government of Denmark, had every intention to subvert the process and replace the UNFCCC negotiating text with a framework of their own. They worked on and with the BASIC countries and a few Least Developed Countries (some 20-odd countries were huddled in a room with Barak Obama) and came out with what is now infamously known as the Copenhagen Accord.

However, on the last night of the conference, when the meeting was convened to endorse the Copenhagen Accord, things went wrong for the US. Despite all the armtwisting, bribery and threats, countries like Tuvalu, Bolivia and Venezuela rejected the accord because they believed that the process was undemocratic and that the accord was very weak on emissions reduction targets.

Only 116 countries of 194 that are parties to the UNFCCC actually associated themselves with the accord. Because the UNFCCC works on consensus, the accord was not passed and was only “noted” by the Conference of Parties. So the design of the big polluters of the world to move out of the two-track process, to dump the Kyoto Protocol and to replace it with the Copenhagen Accord failed.

The US diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks tell us what happened between Copenhagen and Cancun. Just after Copenhagen, the US mounted a major global diplomatic offensive to force small and poor countries to endorse the accord. After all, getting as many countries as possible to endorse the accord was the only way it could have been officially adopted.

The US $30 billion promised by the accord for adaptation in the poorest countries was used to lure countries like Maldives and others in the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) and Least Developed Countries to sign on the accord. In one cable the EU climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, is quoted as saying to the US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate Change Jonathan Pershing that “the AOSIS countries could be our best allies given their need for financing”. In this meeting both Connie and Pershing agreed “on the need to operationalise the Copenhagen Accord and ensure it is incorporated into the UNFCCC process”.

Where money didn’t work threat was used. In one cable the US Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs, Maria Otero, is found urging the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, to sign the Copenhagen Accord and explaining to him “that it is a point of departure for further discussion and movement forward on the topic”. Essentially, threatening Zenawi that he sign the Accord or discussion ends now.

The US government also roped in countries like the Netherlands to use its financial muscle to get poor developing countries to endorse the accord. The fact is that by the end of February 2010, till when WikiLeaks cables are available, 140 countries had already associated with the accord. There were still another 10 month to “work on” countries.

The US diplomatic effort had borne fruit and now it was up to the Mexican government to get the rest on board at Cancun.

The biggest opposition to the Copenhagen Accord came from the Bolivarian Alliance for the peoples of our America (ALBA)—comprising the Latin American and Caribbean countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba. The ALBA group had denounced the process followed to arrive at the Copenhagen Accord as undemocratic and illegitimate. It had denounced the outcome as a “threat to the destiny of humanity”. The task of the Mexican government, therefore, was to work on these countries and get them on board.

This was done quite beautifully by Patricia Espinosa, the president of the CoP 16. She and her colleagues gave huge space to these countries to create a sense of their involvement in the process. The fact that the CoP was being held in the Americas also helped. The solidarity of ALBA group with Mexico to ensure that the conference was not a failure went a long way in creating consensus.

At 9 pm on December 10 at the informal plenary of the CoP, Patricia Espinosa was greeted with a huge applause by the parties and observers. In her opening remarks she emphasised how Cancun had restored the faith of the world in multilateralism which was eroded in Copenhagen. She urged the countries to accept the text prepared by the presidency. In this meeting she again “worked on” the ALBA group. The first three countries she invited to speak were Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela. The agreement was formalised in the wee hours of December 11 at the formal plenary where India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh termed Patricia the goddess.

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