Cancún Talks Bridge Trust Deficit

The TakeAway: COP16 climate talks accomplished more than expected, while restoring trust in the international process that can lead to stronger future measures.

Despite media reports citing lowered expectations – and fear that Copenhagen’s dysfunctions would spill over to this year’s gathering – the 16th annual Conference of Parties (COP16) climate negotiations held in Cancún, Mexico over the past two weeks ended up far better than many people thought—despite mixed reviews from afar.  “It is not what is ultimately required but it is the essential foundation on which to build greater, collective ambition,” said United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres.  “The outcome wasn’t enough to save the planet,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  “But it did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made.”

While worldwide agreement on reducing human-caused carbon emissions remains elusive, important gains occurred on both formal and informal fronts.  One hundred and ninety nations ratified the Cancún Accords, a series of documents that pave the way for confronting climate change after the Kyoto Protocol expires.  Parties meeting under the Kyoto Protocol agree to continue negotiations with the aim of completing their work and ensuring there is no gap between the first (ending in 2012) and second commitment periods of the treaty.

The 30-page Cancún Accords set a target of limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius, “and in a concession to island states, promise to review whether the goal should be lowered to 1.5C,” according to businessGreen’s James Murray.  The multilateral process officially recognizes the voluntary emissions reduction targets of industrialized countries in last year’s two-page Copenhagen Accord.  Wealthy countries agree to develop low-carbon development plans and strategies and assess how best to meet them – including through market mechanisms – and to report their inventories annually.

Similarly, the Cancún Accords grant official recognition under the multilateral process to developing country actions.  A registry will record and match developing country mitigation actions—including financial and technology support from industrialized countries.  Moreover, developing countries will publish progress reports every two years—something to which China has now agreed, a significant departure from its Copenhagen stance.

Participants widely praised the diplomatic skills exercised by the Mexican hosts in negotiating amongst 190 complex and oft-competing economies.  (You can follow Twitter responses at #COP16.)  Other high points contained in the nonbinding text offered by Mexico’s foreign secretary, Patricia Espinosa, include:

  • Creation of a Green Climate Fund that will raise and disburse $100 billion a year by 2020 to protect poor nations against climate impacts while helping them with low-carbon development.  (At the moment, wealthy nation donors to the Green Fund are unclear, but the World Bank will provide interim trustee supervision, under UN auspices);
  • A Clean Development Mechanism to transfer green technology and expertise to developing nations.  This involves a Technology Executive Committee and Climate Technology Centre and Network.
  • A forestry conservation and enhancement program that provides compensation for tropical forest protection that extends REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).  This REDD+ commitment involves forest mitigation efforts such as conserving and enhancing forestry carbon stocks and sustainable forestry management.

On process, the Cancún Accords also recognized the need to address human rights and for broad stakeholder engagement – including young people – as well as a “paradigm shift towards building a low-carbon society that offers substantial opportunities and ensures continued high growth and sustainable development”.

In Sunday’s New York Times, John M. Broder wrote, “In all, the success of the Cancún talks was a shot in the arm for a process that some had likened to a zombie, stumbling aimlessly but refusing to die.”  If the trust, goodwill, and progress generated at Cancún continue, observers believe next year’s Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban, South Africa can achieve a more muscular agreement.

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