Progress on Climate Change Made in Cancun, Challenges Remain

Now that the UN climate negotiations in Cancun are over, analysis of the progress made, or lack thereof, has begun in earnest. While few experts expected the 193 participating nations to achieve agreement on the biggest policy pieces needed to avert catastrophic climate change, there is widespread acknowledgement that what was achieved, known as the Cancun Agreements, represents progress in overcoming several small but critical barriers to the large agreements.


Cancun was, in effect, a re-affirmation of the UN process because parties were able to adopt the main tenets of the Copenhagen Accord, which were noted but not adopted as an official decision of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen. Many had doubted that the UN was the right platform to negotiate climate change agreements because its consensus-driven process had been mired in deep-seeded disagreements between major parties like the United States and China (see Transparency below). Agreement on a GHG reduction goal next year in Durban, South Africa, would be extremely remote without the incremental steps taken in Cancun.

Two Degrees Celsius
The Copenhagen Accord (2009) marked the first time all nations involved in the UN process agreed that global warming should be limited to a specific target: 2⁰C. The Cancun Agreements formalized this target and established a review timeline (2013-2015) because several nations believe the 2⁰C limit is inadequate to prevent catastrophic warming.

A major stumbling block in the UN process has been the concerns of developed countries that emissions reductions in developing countries be real, measurable, and permanent. Also referred to as Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV), with crucial roles played by the U.S. and China, parties in Cancun agreed that internationally supported mitigation actions (i.e., actions funded by other countries) will be subject to international MRV guidelines to be developed by the UNFCCC. The UNFCCC will also develop general guidelines for domestically supported actions.

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+)
One of the biggest actions taken in Cancun was the protection of forests vulnerable to logging and burning--a key area of importance in combating climate change. REDD+ is “a mechanism to create an incentive for developing countries to protect, better manage, and wisely use their forest resources” (REDD). The Agreements established a framework for richer nations to financially support poorer nations in protecting their forests. It is yet to be determined fully what role market mechanisms, such as offsets, will play in the framework. This represents a serious point of contention between adherents to market-based mechanisms and those who are opposed to Northern commoditizing of Southern natural resources.

Cancun established the Green Climate Fund to deliver funds to developing nations for mitigation and adaptation actions. The World Bank will serve as interim trustee until a permanent 24-member Board is established. The fund will presumably be the repository of the $100 billion pledged at Copenhagen, which is to be mobilized by developed countries. Questions still remain regarding the source of financing: public, private, revenue from emissions trading, or other sources. There is also concern from developing countries on whether the funds will be additional to current aid or simply re-purposed aid.

Adaptation and Technology Transfer
There was a renewed focus on helping vulnerable countries adapt to climate change and facilitating the transfer of technology. The Agreements set up an Adaptation Committee and Technology Executive Committee. The former will assist in the development of vulnerability assessments, adaptation strategies and plans. The latter will assist in needs assessments and action plans, and will generally serve to accelerate adoption of low-carbon technology in developing nations.

The Road Ahead

Parties to the UN process still face daunting challenges. Serious barriers to consensus on a global agreement on emissions reductions remain. Many developing countries wish to see a second commitment period after the first period, established under the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, ends in 2012. However, several developed countries are looking at alternatives to Kyoto, like development of the emissions reduction pledges made in Copenhagen. The most notable opponents to continuing Kyoto are Japan, Russia and Canada. Their reason is that the Protocol does not bind the United States, China, or developing countries to emissions reductions, which makes it too partial to be effective.

Several challenges to implementing the agreements reached at Cancun will have to be met in 2011. Parties will now have to write and agree to the guidelines on transparency. Developed countries will have to figure out how to fill the Green Climate Fund in a tight fiscal environment. And whether it is a second commitment period to Kyoto or a Copenhagen-style reduction scheme, parties will have to agree on and quickly implement a new emissions reduction strategy, which also will have to account for the existing market mechanisms set up through Kyoto, such as the emissions trading market in Europe.

Click here for a timeline of the major decisions made through the UN climate process since 1992.

For more analysis and reporting see:

Robert Stavins, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
Norton Rose, LLP
New York Times
Washington Post