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Q&A: Jennifer Morgan on the UNFCCC Cancun Agreements

In this interview with Argus Media, Jennifer Morgan discusses the recent UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks in Cancun, Mexico.

What is your overall impression of the Cancun talks? Did the outcome meet your expectations heading into the conference?

Morgan: For the most part they met the expectations I had, which was they would come to agreement on a set of decisions that would be significant in moving things forward, but they would not be able to get a legally binding agreement in Cancun. That was beyond the reach of what was politically possible. Many thought that was much too optimistic an expectation.

But I think it did what it needed to do to move the ball forward. In some ways it exceeded the expectations that many had stated beforehand.

What do you see as the most important aspects of the agreements?

Morgan: There were maybe three cornerstones of the agreement. You had the pledges that went into the Copenhagen accord from all major economies actually be formalized under the UN, which I think was quite important to show the centrality of the UN Framework Convention process. You had a whole set of transparency provisions around those pledges, for both developed and developing countries, which were pretty detailed but with more details to be negotiated. But they give some confidence that countries are going to be able to know what their competitors are doing or not doing moving forward. The third major piece is the creation of the green fund. Those pieces together created that package so that an agreement was possible.

Why was it significant to get the Copenhagen pledges incorporated into the UN process?

Morgan: The Copenhagen Accord, which included an appendix with these pledges, was only taken note of by the conference of the parties, which in some ways keeps them slightly out of the Framework Convention. With them now coming into a decision under the convention, they become then the basis for what will be reviewed and what will be reported on. It basically brings a higher level of transparency and accountability around those targets. Now there will be a series of negotiations around how those reviews will occur and how those targets will be further defined. That would have been very difficult to do with a set of targets that were just taken note of in an accord.

Why were the Cancun talks successful, while the 2009 talks in Copenhagen were seen by many as not successful?

Morgan: In some ways it ended up being a two-step process. WRI president Jonathan Lash has called it “Copencun.” You needed to have what Copenhagen delivered, which was the full engagement of the governments up to heads of state that made the pledges possible. I do not think you would have had that kind of engagement and those kind of commitments coming forward without that high-level summit and expectations around it. The emphasis that came through the year going to Cancun was that because of the less than optimal outcome of Copenhagen, there were many questions about whether the multilateral process could deliver on this issue. Many of the countries in the UN participating in that process are keen on having a multilateral process continue. That being under threat in some ways forced countries to engage and have to be willing to make compromises and decisions. In Copenhagen there was not an expectation that it could all collapse; in Cancun I think there was an understanding that it could. In some ways that forced countries to find those compromises earlier rather than later.

What does this mean for the UN process moving forward? Could what happened in Cancun be used as a model for this year’s talks in Durban, South Africa, or beyond?

Morgan: The next steps are to go into a kind of rulemaking process around these different building block areas that came out of Cancun. One of the other additional reasons for success in Cancun was the transparency with which all the issues were dealt with by the Mexican presidency. One big lesson that the South Africans are going to follow is to make sure the process is transparent so that all countries are able to equally participate. Durban might be slightly different because you will be moving into quite a level of detail, so it is less about the package and more about the details in the next year.

What role did the U.S, play in Cancun? Did the U.S. negotiators meet their objectives?

Morgan: I think the U.S. was successful in meeting its objectives. When they went into the meeting they were able to secure quite a robust transparency package, which I think was one of their top objectives. And they did so despite the fact that there is quite a lot of doubt internationally about whether the U.S. is going to move forward tackling climate change. It’s a very strong team of negotiators and they certainly seem to have achieved quite a lot of what they were looking for.

How do you see the U.S. success at the talks affecting the domestic policy debate, despite the fact that Congress is unlikely to take up climate legislation for at least two years?

Morgan: I would hope it would actually build some understanding. There will now be a way for the United States to keep track of what other countries are actually doing in reducing their emissions. So if there are concerns about whether it is Europe or China or Japan pledging to do something and then not doing it, I think that the Cancun Agreements have set up a decision where that won’t be possible anymore. It will really help demonstrate what these countries are doing. You actually have many countries moving forward with implementation of legislation or regulation, more so than what we have seen from the U.S. so far. That will become clearer as well. Perhaps that will help in moving forward the debate here and show that there is a reason for the U.S. to move forward on the regulatory side – it is partly because other countries are moving and the U.S. potentially is going to miss out if it doesn’t.

How do you think other countries now view what is happening in the U.S.? Did the Cancun talks help reduce the concerns other countries may have had?

Morgan: I think countries are starting to understand. WRI did a piece of analysis in July that looked at the potential of emissions reductions from executive authorities and showed the US could get in the range of 17% if the administration really did a “go getter” approach. I think countries do understand that the administration does have some tools to move forward with reducing emissions.

I think they certainly understand that this administration takes the problem seriously and is looking to do something. It is amazing how much other countries actually understand of the American political process.

Could you talk a bit about the participation of major developing countries such as China and India? It seemed India in particular played a larger role than it had at previous talks, helping to find an agreement on the transparency issue.

Morgan: It kind of emerged in the last year that India was playing such a proactive role in the negotiations, and I think it was a strong contributing factor to getting agreement in Cancun. India also is moving forward domestically on a range of different initiatives in reducing emissions on renewables and efficiency mostly.

In the negotiations, environment minister Jairam Ramesh was there for quite a long time and I think his proposal – a 10-point plan on transparency – before the meeting was an important thing to open up the debate.

China played a different role. It was mostly there to find agreements. I think the multilateral process is very important for China. I think they also wanted to be a good partner for the G-77 countries as far as getting the green fund set up.

So the tensions were a lot more reduced between the U.S. and China in Cancun than they had been a year before or even months before.

One of the issues that did not get resolved in Cancun was the second commitment period under Kyoto. Is that something that can be resolved by South Africa or soon thereafter?

Morgan: This is one of the most challenging pieces of the puzzle. There is a real question there. They did decide in Cancun to continue the flexible mechanisms – the CDM, JI and emissions trading can continue. Obviously the countries to watch there are Japan and Russia to see if they have any greater level of confidence to move forward in that second commitment period. I would like to think it would be resolved this year but I think it is tough.

What will you be looking for this year to give you an idea of how much progress can be made in South Africa?

Morgan: WRI will be doing quite a bit of work, an analysis, for example, around this green fund and looking for a fund that has strong governance in it and will function well so it will actually attract capital and be effective. Looking at these targets that now have been anchored in the UN, there is going to be a process to further define those – what does business as usual mean for Brazil? What does the Japanese target actually mean? Australia and the European Union may move to increase their targets. There will be debates in both of those regions and countries next year. Finally we need to see if on the transparency issues, there is some kind of environmental accountability and integrity in those. We should get a sense of that by the end of the year.

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