The Cancun Dawn

Every day, for nearly two weeks in Cancun, Mexico, I woke up early in the morning to go walk in the beach and watch the sun rise up from the Caribbean Sea. It was a lovely sight, the Cancun dawn; it moved me to pray and thank The Lord of the Sun and the Sea for this beautiful world.  It made me sing the Canticle of Creatures, a prayer composed by Saint Francis of Assisi, and reminded me that we are called to be stewards of Creation.

Watching the dawn was a good way to begin my days in Cancun where I was attending the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. For twelve days and nights, representatives from 194 countries exchanged views, argued positions, and debated options to find a new global consensus to address the worsening problem of climate change. Fortunately, and against all odds and expectations, we succeeded. In the early hours of the morning of 11 December 2010, the COP adopted the Cancun Agreements on Climate Change, hopefully ushering in a new era of global cooperation on this issue. Unlike in Copenhagen last year, which ended in disarray, Cancun concluded with multiple standing ovations, in praise particularly of the Mexican hosts who, according to most delegations, had expertly, transparently and inclusively shepherded the negotiations. Mexican President Felipe Calderon himself came at four in the morning to address and thank the delegates.

Climate change is the most serious environmental challenge the world confronts. It is a high priority for the Philippines because we are one of those that will be hardest hit by its impacts. Aware of the stakes for the country, our delegation worked very hard in Cancun. Led by Secretary Lucille Sering of the Climate Change Commission, it was one of the most constructive and influential in the Cancun negotiations. We played leadership roles in producing three of the most important outcomes of Cancun: the creation of a Green Climate Fund, the adoption of an adaptation framework and the establishment of the REDD-Plus mechanism for the protection, conservation, and enhancement of forests. We also actively contributed to the technology transfer and capacity building discussions in Cancun. Likewise, we played important roles in the negotiations on the long-term shared vision for addressing climate change and on how countries can mitigate carbon emissions that cause climate change. These latter two negotiations will continue for another year and hopefully conclude in Durban, South Africa in December, 2011.

The servant-leadership of our senior government officials was exemplary in Cancun. Secretary Sering, Commissioner Yeb Saño, and Agriculture Undersecretary Sigfredo Serrano stayed non-stop and sleepless with the country’s negotiators in the last 48 hours of the Conference and gave proper guidance in upholding the national interest and instructions as issues came up for decision. Commissioner Heherson Alvarez stayed the whole duration of the conference tirelessly networking with like-minded colleagues.

The Green Climate Fund could not have been created without the tireless efforts of veteran climate negotiator Bernaditas Muller, a retired Philippine diplomat who lives in Geneva, Switzerland but whose heart is and always will be Filipino. Ms. Muller, who led developing countries in the Finance negotiations, was backed up, among others, by diplomat Ivy Banzon-Abalos, who while new in the climate issue has quickly learned the substance and process, and by Athena Ronquillo-Ballesteros, another veteran climate negotiator who came all the way from Washington DC to assist the delegation.

From the very beginning, a good adaptation agreement was a priority for the Philippines. As Lui Jolongbayan, from the National Economic and Development Authority, told me: “Getting progress on adaptation is urgent for the country’s sustainable development”. Undersecretary Serrano, an experienced trade negotiator, led our adaptation team and quickly became well-respected for technical competence and political wisdom. He was supported by experts from government agencies, academic institutions and citizen organizations (including international organizations like Oxfam International).

I had the privilege of leading the team of REDD-plus negotiators for the Philippines coming from conservation, environmental, human rights, carbon investment and academic organizations. Our principal spokesperson was Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, recognized indigenous peoples’ leader. Vicky was very persuasive in arguing for the inclusion of human rights, environmental and governance safeguards in the Cancun Agreements, the first time that such safeguards have been incorporated into multilateral environmental agreements. The REDD-plus mechanism, based principally on a draft text I facilitated agreement on in Copenhagen, can potentially result in substantial benefits for the country and our forest-dependent communities.

Indeed, it was with pride that I watched the Philippine Delegation at work in Cancun. To borrow the words of Desiree Llanos Dee, recent graduate of Ateneo de Manila and a youth delegate, “I have never been more proud to be a Filipino.”

The Cancun Agreements are by no means perfect. This is the reason why one country, Bolivia, refused to endorse them. I agree with Bolivia that the Cancun Agreements are not good enough but unfortunately the alternative would be another ten or more years of paralysis and inaction. I do believe that the Philippines must take its own actions and prepare for the worst. Thus, I support the passage of the proposed People’s Survival Fund, Senate Bill 2558 sponsored by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile and its counterpart House Bill 2528 authored by Representative Erin Tañada. We owe our people every defense they can have against climate change.

Going back to the Bolivia, Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Patricia Espinosa, President of the COP, ruled that she could not allow one country to veto the will of 193 other countries who wanted to move forward on climate change. Secretary Sering, supporting adoption of the Cancun Agreements, echoed this saying that their adoption was “a stepping stone towards further progress for the benefit of not only this generation but also for those yet unborn”.

The most important outcome of Cancun is this: finally, the world was able to break away from its inertia and stalemate, lasting for more than a decade now, on climate change. This gives a young person like Desiree hope. In a letter she sent to me as a note of gratitude for mentoring her and the other youth delegates, she writes: “To sit in a room full of people with so much power, hearing them not come to an agreement, it really made us ask, what are we doing here then? What’s the point if you don’t come here to agree on anything? Why do we sit through this tedious process?” My answer to Desiree: “We do this because there is always hope, because there is light at the end of tunnel, because you have to believe in human goodness, and because there is grace, conversion and redemption.”

Whenever I negotiate, I remind myself of four adages: (1) The enemy of the good is the perfect; (2) The journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step – in the right direction; (3) The same journey begins from where you are, thus know where you came from; and (4) Tomorrow is another day, so never give up. After Cancun, I think I should add a fifth: “Wake up early, watch the breaking of dawn, and pray.”

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