Even advocates of the climate deal brokered in Cancun among 193 nations admit that it is a modest document. The "Cancun Agreements," as it is called, mostly adds flesh to the bare bones of last year's Copenhagen Accord.
No big polluters raised their carbon-cutting offers, which means the world is on track to warm by at least 3 degree Celsius by the end of the century. Overall, it shouldn't be the stuff of global elation on the climate issue.
Yet the mediocre deal received an extraordinary outpouring of support from the poorest and richest nations alike. Many countries — from the Maldives to Bangladesh and Australia — heralded it as a ringing manifesto for multilateralism.
Why? In short, because Mexico skillfully shepherded the critically panned negotiations and came up with a compromise that allowed key states and negotiating blocs to claim partial victory.
Foreign Ministry in Charge
To the surprise of some, Mexico emerged as a "climate leader," said Durwood Zaelke, president and founder of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, a nongovernment organization based in Washington. "They now have credibility with North and with South."
Mexico's decision to put its foreign ministry in charge of the grueling talks was especially crucial to its success, veterans of UN diplomacy say. Historically, environment ministries have led most countries' climate delegations. Patricia Espinosa, the 52-year-old Mexican foreign secretary with over 20 years of diplomacy experience, was put at the helm.
"Mexico basically said, 'This is a major diplomatic conference. It has geopolitical implications. We're putting the professional negotiators in charge,'" Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at environmental group Nature Conservancy, told SolveClimate News.
The decision was seen as controversial by some in Mexico at the time. But the success of it became apparent almost immediately.
Within days of the Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 talks, Espinosa's leadership style was being described as tough but open, transparent, skilled, responsible and graceful. On the final day, she received three standing ovations and accolades the world over. "A goddess has been present today," gushed Jairam Ramesh, India's environment minister.
"The parties understood how much they owed her," Zaelke told SolveClimate News.
Unusual Approach — 'But it Worked'
The real work of consensus building happened behind the scenes. "[The Mexican delegation] showed an unprecedented level of respect for the process and for the negotiators," Deutz said.
The norm in climate talks is for negotiators to resolve issues in the first week and then kick the stickiest matters up to high-level ministers to haggle over in the second week before the final gavel.
"That never happened this time around," Deutz said. The Mexicans kept the talks at the level of the negotiators, and ministers were used as facilitators and chair people.
"They used a different approach that was somewhat unusual. But it worked," he said.
At the same time, Espinosa repeatedly stepped forward to quash a spate of rumors about secret text. "The consequence of that is that they built a lot of social capital and trust in the chairmanship," said Deutz.
Christiana Figueres, the recently appointed executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, created an unified front with Espinosa and used the media to beat back hallway gossip. She also added a fresh dimension to the deadlocked talks, Zaelke said. "She's new. She's fresh. She's full of optimism ... People trust her on both sides."
Another key figure in securing the agreement was Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexico's permanent representative to the United Nations. Months before the Copenhagen summit kicked off last December, the Mexican government appointed him to be the nation's special representative of climate change.
"He spent a year and a half attending all the climate meetings, but also traveling around to all of the side meetings and the consultations, building trust, learning what countries' positions were, and figuring out what it would take to make the deal work," Deutz said.
In Cancun, de Alba was engaged in intense bilateral discussions with major nations. He listened carefully to their non-negotiable demands, parties said. The result was a compromise that was hard to knock down. Even though it forced countries to make tough concessions, it gave them as much — if not more — than they hoped for on their key issues.
Todd Stern, the U.S. climate envoy, who raved about the Mexican delegation and de Alba in particular, summed up the feeling of many: "The Mexicans ... did an extraordinarily good diplomatic job of trying to find solutions where you might not think there would be."
For its part, the U.S. would not budge on "anchoring" the voluntary emissions pledges that were made in Copenhagen by rich countries and emerging economies. They also wanted China and others to agree to detailed monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) measures of how they are getting fulfilled.
On MRV, Stern told reporters: "We ended up with a decision on this issue that’s very, very good."
Other Factors at Work