Cancun and the struggle for Climate Justice

The irony of convening a climate change conference at a lavish resort built on reclaimed mangroves - one whose beach front had to be rejuvenated with sand dredged from the ocean for $70 million, was not completely lost on the delegates at the COP16 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Thousands of world leaders, negotiators, climate change experts and activists from 194 countries met in Cancun, Mexico with a stated desire to save our shared commons from impending climate disaster. The decisions they took - and the ones they chose not to adopt, have severe implications on climate justice and the very question of mankind’s survival. [1] Given the amount of jargon surrounding the climate change debate, it is natural for the average person to feel dissuaded from engaging in the climate change discussion. Our objective in this essay is to present a synopsis of Cancun's outcomes from a left-progressive standpoint and put forward a few themes for further discussion.

Positive Outcomes

Strengthening of UN-led multilateral mechanism

Most commentators agree about one thing - the multilateral mechanism under the UNFCC umbrella has been strengthened. We have no illusions about the intense background lobbying and pressuring that has happened to push through key elements of the larger agenda that developed countries were interested in. It appears that bureaucrats and negotiators have mastered the art of “playing” the system. Identify an absolute minimum program which satisfies hard constraints and key constituents back at home, postpone or delegate all difficult decisions till later and more importantly, do so while avoiding the vulgar high-handedness of Copenhagen where the developing world was asked to “take-it-or-leave” the rich man’s proposal. However, at the same time, it is hardly a secret that there are powerful special interest groups in the West, who would rather not have to deal with a multilateral framework at all. Some of the sound-bites coming from the so-called liberal policy think-tanks provides a fascinating insight into their game plan of discrediting UN in favor of a climate change regime more tightly controlled by G-7, G-20 or other cliques. Even with all the drawbacks of the UN Climate Change framework and the glacial pace of change, we feel rather relieved about this small, yet meaningful victory.

People’s Pressure

Paradoxically, the only other positive outcome from the conference came from outside the framework of the conference and the heavily guarded security perimeter of the Moon Palace resort. The global campaigns for climate justice and a wide spectrum of people’s movements have continued to mobilize and maintain pressure at Cancun. They came from all around the world - holding banners of protest, singing songs of solidarity and slogans of resistance, camping out in the open and marching up to the barricades of Moon Palace - to demand climate action. It’s hard for the climate policy establishment to miss the unwillingness to take failure as an answer - something that future generations will forever be indebted for their tenacity and perseverance.

Inconclusive outcomes

REDD+ and Deforestation prevention

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) has been a particularly thorny issue even within the climate justice movement. On the face of it, the provisions can lead to substantial outcomes in preventing deforestation and degradation. Several leading lights of the green movement like Jane Goodall and Wangari Maathai have joined hands with names like George Soros, World Bank President Robert Zoellick and Walmart chairman Rob Walton to champion the proposal.[2] However, as Meena Raman with Third World Network noted, the devil’s in the details. Groups like REDD-Monitor point out that provisions to protect indigenous people’s rights aren’t strong enough and that it may very well be used to legitimize land-grab under a lofty pretext [3] Of perhaps even more importance, is the argument that funding for REDD+ can come from market based mechanisms like carbon trading and private financing. This is a particularly convenient way for large scale green house gas emitters to avoid any serious cutbacks at the source and invest in protecting forests in the developing world.[4] Other commentators have pointed out that the agreement largely postpones the issue of financing to COP17 at Durban 2011.[5]

Financing and Global Green Fund

Announcement of a $100 billion green fund is bound to impress many at first sight. However, it is important to note that it is a mere commitment to mobilize $100 billion a year in public and private finance by 2020 under the “guidance of and accountable to Conference of Parties (COP)”, rather than a fund in itself.[6] There were also severe apprehensions regarding the role World Bank and other institutions would play in administering this fund. Some of that has been alleviated with a 40-member transitional committee (15 representatives from developed countries and 25 from the developing countries) and World Bank as its interim trustee. The developed countries have agreed to provide more visibility into the fast-track funding of $30 billion that was already promised at Copenhagen. The dismal performance of previous funding commitments, ambiguity regarding the implementation details and the deep structural flaws inherent in the intermediary institutions like World Bank, all elevate our skepticism on the front.

Technology Transfer

On the important question of technology transfer to developing countries to help embark on a low-carbon development path, Cancun established a Technology Mechanism comprised of a Technology Executive Committee (TEC) and a Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN). On the face of it, this is structurally very much in line with the earlier recommendations from a November meeting of the Expert Group on Technology Transfer (EGTT) in New Delhi. The 20-member TEC will be comprised of experts nominated by parties and will commence it’s operations soon. Yet at the same time, - one of the most contentious issues - the issue of Intellectual Property Rights has been taken off the text due to pressure from developed countries. Monopolistic rent seeking for low-carbon path technologies is indeed a grave issue. It is also unclear how the technology transfer will be financed and even how the 2 bodies (TEC and CTCN) will co-ordinate between them.

Clear Setbacks

Undermining of Kyoto Protocol

The biggest setback from Cancun is the deliberate and systematic undermining of the Kyoto protocol - the only binding framework in favor of a voluntary, ”pledge and review” system championed by US and increasingly many others like Japan, Canada, Russia and Australia. While it can be argued that on paper, the Kyoto protocol has survived to fight another day at COP17 - by all indications, nothing short of a major pro-climate justice political mobilization in countries like US, Japan, Russia and India will keep it alive. In many ways, the challenge we feel is to organize international resistance against attempts to kill the Kyoto Protocol and yet, at the same time conceptualize what can best represent a comprehensive and equitable climate action plan in a post-KP world.

Jettisoning of common but differentiated responsibility

Beyond the specific instance of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, we also sense a severe setback to the UNFCC’s directional principle of common, but differentiated responsibility. In not so many words perhaps, but indeed that is what seems to have died an early death through a thousand different diplomatic maneuverings. There are clear indications that despite the weak language inserted into the text such as “sustainable development”, the Cancun agreement formalizes the machinations set in motion at Copenhagen.

Legitimizing inequitable access to global atmospheric commons

“Cancunhagen” trend of disposing the principle of equitable access to carbon space is particularly significant. [7] In our analysis, this has been done in large part due to the ability of the Northern block to split up the South with enticements in the form of REDD, financing, etc. Not surprisingly, as other analysts have pointed out, these appeasements in the form of market-friendly mitigation mechanisms are rather attractive to not just the North as a geopolitical block, but also the elites in the South [4] All of the diplomatic niceties and technical jargon cannot mask the fact that equitable access to the global atmospheric commons - that poor of the world has historically been denied - can be the only ethical stand on this mater. Yet, by glossing over the difference between the rich and the poor, the past and present levels of emissions, the stock and flow of green house gases - the Cancun proceedings reflect several steps taken to legitimize this grave inequity.

Insufficient emission reduction targets

Climate science is clear about one thing - the targets set for global emission cuts are far below what’s required to limit temperature rise to 2 degree Celsius. A United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) study released prior to the Cancun conference show that the current targets set by countries will result in a shortfall of anywhere in between 5 to 9 billion tonnes of CO2. [6] How did the policy establishment respond to this alarming finding? By weaving in more fluffy language around ambition and non-binding targets. As the climate change activist, D. Raghunandan points out, we see every possibility of developed countries and large emitters utilizing the loopholes to renege on the commitment even further. [8] It is nothing short of a major propaganda victory, for the polluters to divert attention from what climate science demands as the absolute minimum steps to take. A gigatonne of carbon here and another gigatonne there, is a guaranteed way to bring the curtains on man’s relatively short reign on this planet.

Brinkmanship at Durban

We believe that the one of the least understood outcomes from this conference is the manner in which the next COP17 conference at Durban, South Africa has been engineered up for failure. Postponing all grunt-work to a plethora of expert committees and delaying all concrete decisions to Durban Conference in 2011 - not only buys more time and helps countries to evade immediate emission cuts, it also acts as an excellent tool to put pressure on countries to accept a watered-down deal. By raising the stakes for Durban and engaging in unprecedented brinkmanship, mankind’s future has yet again been put on notice.

On the whole, even though this conference has managed to avert a complete disaster in climate negotiations - and indeed there are a few provisions that can yield positive results, we summarize the net impact of the conference as a deadly blow to a science-based, sustainable and equitable path forward towards climate justice and survival.

The struggles ahead

The developments at Cancun clearly point out the need for a broad-based mobilization to reclaim our global commons from climate disaster and crippling inequity. The movement has to draw the right lessons and revise the plan for the road ahead. With that in mind, we propose a few themes for further discussion and debate in the context of the struggle for climate justice.

Reclaiming Internationalism

Few other issues affect the poor and dispossessed with singular ferocity and display an utter disregard for nation-state boundaries as global climate change. The need to build and strengthen international solidarity between peoples of the world has never before been this important. In the absence of a legally binding framework to control the actions of actors like governments and corporations, it is incumbent on the people to organize and impose the weight of public scrutiny and collective action to hold them accountable - locally, nationally and globally. Indeed, some of the hair-splitting arguments about national emission targets and monitoring and reporting requirements, may have to be revisited against the context of global trade, supply chains and transnational nature of capital. Capital, when faced with stricter emission controls in a developed country - will find it rather profitable and easy to export carbon-intensive manufacturing and processing to a developing country, perhaps to a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in India which is immune to local climate control, labor or tax regulations. There is mounting evidence for this hypothesis. A 2008 study had pointed out how one-third of China’s CO2 emissions have been traced to producing export goods for consumption in the developed countries. [9] It is highly problematic to count such emissions as an instance of China using up it’s unused share of the global atmospheric commons. It is not enough to ascribe it to leakage in climate policy parlance - there is a need to adopt a markedly internationalist approach to climate justice.

National agenda for climate justice

There is a urgent need to begin work towards a national-level people’s agenda for climate justice in the Indian context. With the vast majority of man-made GHG emissions in India coming out of power generation and heavy industries, we anticipate a sharp divergence in the interest of corporations (private or state-owned) and the urban elite classes on the one side and the rest of India. Given the deep structural imbalance in energy provisioning in India - along both regional and socio-economic lines - it is extremely important to extend the perimeter of climate justice discussion to the national and regional level, and guide the discussion with a clear mandate to advance socio-economic equity.[10] Common but differentiated responsibility should be a directive principle not just at the international level - it should also be equally applicable to policy making at the national, state and local levels. Needless to say this discussion has to be qualitatively different from the top-down policy making as evidenced in National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) of 2008 [11]

Holding policy makers accountable

It is rather evident from Copenhagen and Cancun that Indian establishment has played a significant role in affecting the trajectory of negotiations as well as the overall outcome.[14] It is shameful and saddening that in both cases, India has not only failed to live up to the expectations of global leadership for climate justice, it has played an active role in advancing vested interests of polluters and developed countries. This cannot be tolerated any further. One clear area of intervention would be to confront the Indian climate policy makers with a demand to publish India’s current policy position and intended direction going forward. Once this is in the public domain and put under a constant public vigil - it would be much more difficult for a Minister of Environment or a top MoE bureaucrat to depart from it without being held accountable not just inside the Parliament, the Press Club but also out on the streets and thoroughfares.

Left parties' role in the struggle for Climate Justice

We are deeply troubled by the lack of a strong and vibrant people’s front to advance the struggle for climate justice. By this, we do not mean to trivialize the stellar contributions of a wide range of green-left organizations, activists and even a handful of the larger progressive NGOs and other institutions in this movement. However, in a country of over billion people with vast majority entrapped in extreme poverty and oppression, climate justice activism can only go so far without joining hands with the larger struggle for economic and social justice. On a wide variety of issues ranging from Bhopal and Endosulfan to climate change and mining policy - the Congress Party and even the liberal faction inside it, stands exposed of horrendous crimes of omission and commission. Against this backdrop, we look at the mainstream left democratic parties as the key actors who have the ability to not only equate climate action with justice, but also to translate a long-term agenda and program into tangible action. Even as we acknowledge that CPI-M has adopted a remarkably strong, progressive position on climate change [12] and has been very supportive of environmental justice movements in the past - the fact remains that climate activism has not been a priority issue in the left-democratic political platform. For the left parties to stay away from the forefront of this struggle would be to lose a historic opportunity to advance the larger left-progressive cause.


It is rather tempting to call Cancun a mixed bag of results and leave it at that. Indeed the half-full/half-empty cup or one-step-forward/two-steps-backward metaphors seem rather appropriate to describe it. It is also equally natural to feel a sense of fatigue and even betrayal - after all, there is overwhelming evidence of well-planned interventions to sabotage an adequate global response to the looming environmental and humanitarian crisis. However, none of that should distract the climate justice movement from disentangling the complex maze of scientific, social, economic and political issues involved, learning the right lessons, reformulating a plan of action - all while reaffirming our solemn commitment to the struggles that lie ahead.

Notes and References

This essay is based on a paper that had earlier appeared on Our sincere thanks to all who reviewed the early drafts and provided valuable feedback, in particular to the friends at Please send your comments and feedback about the article to or

[1] UNFCC Secretariat Press Release, 11 December 2010,

[2] Keya Acharya, IPS , December 9, 2010 “See the Green in REDD+, Say Top Leaders in Cancún”

[3] REDD-Monitor, “REDD: An Introduction”

[4] Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,December 12, 2010, “Climate Capitalism Won”

[5] jc227, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies Blog, December 13, 2010 “Where angels fear to tredd”

[6] Jennifer Morgan, World Resources Institute, “Reflections on the Cancun Agreements”, December 14, 2010

[7] Kristen Sheeran, December 8, 2010, “Spotlight Cancun: Kyoto Protocol Post Mortem”

[8] D. Raghunandan,, December 16, 2010, “Cancunhagen: glass three-fourths empty”

[9] Catherine Brahic, New Scientist, July 28, 2008, “33% of China's carbon footprint blamed on exports”

[10] Shankar Sharma et al., GreenPeace India, “Still Waiting: A report on climate injustice”

[11] Raghu, People’s Democracy, July 6, 2008, “India's Climate Action Plan: Many Points, No Direction”

[12], 25 October, 2009, “Central Committee Resolution on Climate Change”

[13] D. Raghunandan, Prabir Purkayastha & T. Jayaraman, The Hindu, June 23, 2009, “Breaking the climate deadlock”

[14] Todd Stern, US State Department, December 14, 2010 “Briefing on the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun”