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Cancun: A tale of two cities

Irrespective of the final outcome in Cancun this week, one issue that has become glaringly apparent over the last 12 days, at least as far as the international negotiations go, is that the opportunity for dialogue and interaction between government and business remains insufficient and that much more needs to happen in this space. After all, the job of managing emissions globally is going to fall broadly on the business community through the delivery of major projects and new products.

UNFCCC meetings have been going on for nearly twenty years and at least for the many that I have attended there was the feeling of one big collective action slowly moving forward. Everybody frequented the same convention centre and it was quite common to see national delegates in your hotel lift or perhaps even a familiar face from a major delegation at the next table at breakfast. There was plenty of opportunity for interaction, hence the feeling of a joint initiative where business at least had a voice. But was it all an illusion?

At this COP, the logistics of the event have severely limited the opportunity for interaction. The negotiations are taking place in a vast hotel complex in Cancun called the Moon Palace and many of the delegations are staying there as well – there are 2457 rooms. It has a campus style layout and the hotel even provides bicycles for getting around the site. At a separate location some 5+ kilometres away is the UNFCCC staging point for entry, registration, security checks and side events (presentations put on by business and civil society, ideally with members of the delegations, which serve as a learning platform for all concerned). The staging point is really only accessible by special COP buses from the hotel strip in Cancun and the only way to get in and out of the Moon Palace is by a second set of buses which link that site with the staging post (and this is also true for the delegates when they wish to leave). As such, a visit to meet a delegate or to one of the very few side events in the Moon Palace involves catching the hourly shuttle from your hotel to the staging point, going through security, catching a second bus, walking through the vast Moon Palace site to a room in a distant corner of the hotel, having the meeting or listening to the side event and then repeating the entire process, making sure that the timing is right so as not to have to wait 59 minutes at the staging point for a bus. In one well timed visit to a meeting in the Moon Palace, all that took me 4 hours 20 minutes and I didn’t even stay for the entire event having heard the presentation I was actually interested in.

The staging site is a sorry place, not from the perspective of the facilities offered which are excellent, but because of the complete lack of attention being given to the legion of well meaning and pamphlet bearing NGOs manning their cubicles, all decked out with posters, video screens and other display material. Most people are simply intent on rushing through this building to get from one bus to another. Some side events are well attended but in many instances the audience is simply made up of business people and NGOs attending each others presentations. There aren’t very many pink badges (a Party) to be seen at all. This is quite a departure from previous COPs.

 Meanwhile, organisations such as IETA and WBCSD held their own events in Cancun itself. As usual the quality was high and attendance was good but pink badges were few and far between. One key appearance at the WBCSD Business Day was by Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, who repeated the mantra of the need for business involvement in the process but also went one step further and accused some parts of business of deliberately attempting to put a handbrake on the proceedings.

In fairness to the Mexican Government, they have made a real effort to broker a discussion between business and government on the potential shape and key elements of an international agreement. This all took place in the lead-up to COP 16 but government attendance was modest, at least in my experience. The key output was presented back to the business audience at the WBCSD Business Day.

All of this isn’t to say that there is no interaction because there clearly is. But the physical gap between government and everybody else at this COP did highlight what is in broad terms still a fairly limited dialogue between the two. They went about their business in the Moon Palace and everybody else attended a trade fair spread out across the rest of Cancun. In reality, this has always been the nature of a COP, but somehow sharing a lift with the lead negotiator for the United States or saying hello to Yvo de Boer in the coffee lounge perhaps made us all think that more was happening. More does need to happen if this process is going to work.

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Dec 11, 2010

I’m not sure what you expect out of what purports to be a venue for state to state negotiations aimed at resolving a serious issue.

Think about Yalta, where the post war architecture of the map of Europe and to some extent the rest of the world, was laid out.  Did anyone expect 10,000 hangers on to have influence on what Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin decided to do, had they showed up?  The Bretton Woods meeting set up the rules for the post war economy that lasted for about three decades.  What role should a few tens of thousands of self appointed hangers-on have played during that meeting? 

The people these governments at Cancun derive their legitimacy from are the electorates or citizens in their home countries.  Why principal negotiators should give the slightest bit of attention to what 10,000 paid lobbyists, NGO leaders, or even some lesser tourist types who are hanging around, thinks about what the national political position should be seems preposterous.  It may feel good to be in a place where you can rub shoulders with the high and mighty, but is this really the way you’d like your government to behave – to go against what its voters want, or what it thinks those who keep it in power want, in favor of doing what a majority of the hangers on at Cancun want them to do? 

From where I sit it looks like a big party people justify on whatever basis they can come up with.  What prospects for success did the meeting have given what happened to the climate bill in the US Senate? 

David Hone's picture

Thank David for the Post!

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