Mexico Hailed for Making Climate Talks a Global Triumph

Mexico's decision to put its foreign ministry in charge of the grueling talks was crucial to its success. Can South Africa pick up where Mexico left off?

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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

Most close observers agree that Mexican diplomacy alone did not create the conditions for the Cancun outcome. Other factors were aligned to at least prevent failure.  

Perhaps the most critical influence was the desire and need to slay the “ghosts” of Copenhagen. “After the failure of Copenhagen, they had to get a deal. They had to make progress,” Zaelke said.

Rarely has a UN negotiating meeting been lambasted so loudly by so many. The feeling after Copenhagen was that Cancun would be the last chance to show that multilateralism can work for climate change. “No one wanted to be the scapegoat for that this time,” Zaelke said.

But the Denmark summit also provided something of a boost. “We had an unprecedented engagement of presidents and prime ministers in Copenhagen,” said Deutz. It helped “mark the transition from climate change being an environmental issue to being a geopolitical issue,” opening the door to more participation by finance and foreign ministries.

Also helping matters in Cancun was that some powerful countries steeped into leadership roles. India, for instance, played a vital function in the seemingly intractable MRV squabble by formulating the basis of the compromise proposal between the U.S. and China.

In the hours after the Cancun deal was done, Stern specifically highlighted India’s text as a “very constructive proposal.”

“When you have that kind of leadership coming from one of the most important developing countries, it creates an important political dynamic that other countries can rally around,” said Deutz.

South Africa

Still, despite all the pleasing smiles and handshakes, the road ahead is bumpy.

Most of the decisions in Cancun “were more about process than substance,” Deutz said. Negotiators made substantial headway on new arrangements for a “green climate fund” for developing nations, technology transfer, adaptation, transparency and forest preservation. But the pressure will be on heads of government in the lead up to the 2011 meeting in South Africa to accelerate the make-or-break issues.

“The final [Cancun] outcome leaves all options on the table and sets no clear path toward a binding agreement,” the Pew Center on Global Climate Change said.

Even assuming that the big problem of the Kyoto Protocol’s future post 2012 can be overcome, rich countries’ emissions pledges still fall far short of what’s needed to avert dangerous climate change.  

If current pledges are met, they will only achieve 60 percent of the carbon cuts needed to keep temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees Celsius, according to the UN Environment Program.

“The Cancun decision creates an opportunity for the world to raise the collective level of emission-reduction targets in the months and years ahead,” said Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But it doesn’t guarantee success, and there is no more agreement on how much should be done, and by which countries, than there was when negotiators arrived in Cancun.”

In a statement released on Monday, Figueres said: “All countries, but particularly industrialized nations, need to deepen their emission reduction efforts and to do so quickly.”

Another critical unknown is whether the South Africans can pull off a diplomatic coup like the Mexicans. Most agree they have a deep talent pool to draw form.

The country will take over the climate chairmanship after its successful hosting of the World Cup.

“They’re earning their place on the world stage, and this is another big milestone for them, so I think they’re going to have the talent,” Zaelke said. “I will predict that they will continue the success that started in Mexico.”

See Also

Climate Talks End With Modest Deal and Standing Ovation

Technology Transfer Deal Likely in Cancun, but Nitty Gritty Missing

Ideological Foes Assail UN Forest Scheme from Two Sides

Japan’s Motion to Kill Kyoto Protocol a ‘Slap in the Face,’ Advocates Say