12/23/2010 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Interesting Times: Carbon Curse or Climate Blessing?

"May you live in interesting times..." the reputed curse from ancient Confucian days that may well have been coined with December 2010 in mind.

In the week following the closing of the Cancun climate conference, a debate has raged about whether the outcome was a step forward or backward. Smart people who share the same goals, interpretation of facts, and analysis of what is needed, have come to opposite conclusions.

At the center of the debate is the inadequacy of the pledges made by developed countries to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases, and the means by which pledges could be turned into legally binding commitments. Let's start with what everyone seems to agree on:

If all these targets and actions are fully implemented, UN estimates show they could deliver only 60 percent of the emission reductions that science says will be needed to stay below the agreed two degree rise in average temperatures, and two degrees does not guarantee the survival of the most vulnerable peoples.

The World Resources Institute argues that Cancun took an important step forward:
While it is clear that the current targets are inadequate to reduce emissions to the levels need to stay within 2 degrees warming, it was an important step to incorporate them into a UNFCCC decision and to clarify assumptions underlying them. These targets previously were only noted in the Copenhagen Accord, now they are formally under the UNFCCC and should be the basis for the review clauses [to consider strengthening the goal to 1.5°].

Maybe even two steps forward? E3G calls the outcome a "lifeline for the international climate talks." NRDC calls it a "foundation on which to build greater action," and GermanWatch refers to it as a groundbreaking achievement.

But there is a vociferous step-backwards camp:

The agreement ... failed to make progress on the most essential part: steep, binding emissions cuts for developed countries. Friends of the Earth International warns that this agreement provides a platform for abandoning the Kyoto Protocol, replacing it with a weak pledge and review system as a legacy of the Copenhagen Accord, that would lead to a devastating five degree Celsius warming.

Evo Morales by The City Project, Robert Garcia

The government of Bolivia, the sole dissenting voice on the final night of the Cancun climate talks, directly opposed the agreement and is now threatening to take legal action. Bolivia's chief negotiator Ambassador Pablo Solon described the Cancun Agreement as,

..a step backward. We won't have a more stronger agreement at the end of 2011; we will have a weaker, a voluntary agreement where everybody says what he wants to do, but there is no relation between what he does and the target that we need to achieve in order to limit the increase in the temperature.

It is hard to see how an agreement which takes us only part of the way towards our goal can be called a step backwards. Granted, the urgency of the problem requires us to take 10 steps forward at a sprint so the frustration of crawling forward one or two steps at a time is understandable. But had the negotiations collapsed, the ground under our feet would have disappeared entirely.

Much of the frustration of the Bolivians has to do with the second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, which Japan and Russia have now said they will not sign up to. But does the nuanced wordsmithing in the Cancun Agreement signal the abandonment of Kyoto? Or set in motion a process for saving it as suggested by the World Wildlife Fund?

An Extra Year of Diplomacy
The World Resources Institute delineates several steps forward taken in Cancun on Kyoto, including explicit recognition that on the whole, developed countries have to reduce their emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 - something the IPCC says is necessary to stand a decent chance of keeping temperature rise below 2° -- and, for the first time, a formal agreement by major emitters on the need to act. Clever drafting in Cancun prevented the elephant in the room from stomping all over the agreement: With the US unable to bring comparable commitments to the table, Russia and Japan were unwilling to sign up for a second-round.

Is the fact that we bought ourselves an extra year of diplomacy a step forward? I would argue yes, because the alternative is worse. Those who state that the climate doesn't have that extra year have a valid point, but they have not put forward a viable alternative. Torpedoing the only process we have by mounting a legal challenge to the Cancun agreement is not a smart strategy.

As for the process, many believe the chair's unwillingness to let a single country block the agreement was a major step forward in saving multilateralism as a whole. Others see an opportunity to fix the decidedly unhelpful interpretation of "consensus" procedures which ironically enough were instituted by default when Saudi Arabia blocked agreement on voting rules (which have allowed it to drag decision making to the lowest common denominator ever since).

The interesting thing about the Cancun debate is that opinions do not divide along clear political lines. It's not a case of Left versus Right, environment versus development, North versus South.

The division is much more between idealism and pragmatism -- those who set aside political considerations and look only at what is just and necessary, and those who recognize that politics is the "art of the possible" (and in UN politics even more so). Both sides have a point, and it is political will that will determine whether we ultimately find ourselves skipping down the pathway to destruction or salvation. It is largely up to us to make sure governments choose the right path.

Interesting times indeed.