24th Oct 2016

Cancun climate deal restores faith in UN process

  • Inhabitants of some small island nations are already suffering the effects of climate change (Photo: Oxfam)

Negotiators have reached an agreement at UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico. Although far from the legally binding deal on carbon emission cuts called for by campaigners, officials argue progress in a number of areas has restored faith in the UN multi-lateral process and laid the groundwork for a more conclusive agreement in South Africa next December.

A formal recognition that the world's emission pledges need to go further, progress in developing a monitoring system to verify cuts, together with support for a Green Fund to help developing nations finance the fight against climate change in the long-term, were among the successes held up at the close of play.

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"Many of us when we came to Cancun feared there was a real risk that nothing would be done," EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard told a news conference shortly after the discussions ended on Saturday morning (11 December). "We got the Cancun Agreement, that is progress."

Delegates heaped praise on the Mexican presidency for their inclusive approach to the talks, with backroom dealmaking leading to a major breakdown in trust at last year's acrimonious UN meeting in Copenhagen.

Only 24 hours before this year's finish, the prospect of reaching an agreement at Cancun was looking decidedly bleak, said participants. "On Thursday night there was considerable pessimism," Greenpeace policy director Wendel Trio told EUobserver by phone from the conference hall. "But a lot of progress was made on Friday as participants realised time was running out."

As the clock ticked down, a final draft text produced by the Mexicans at 7pm on Friday evening appeared to contain enough for the 193 participating nations to agree a final deal, prompting a flurry of last-minute negotiations as each side sought to achieve the best possible result.

Components of the deal

The resulting Cancun Agreement acknowledges for the first time in a UN document that global warming must be kept below 2 degrees centigrade compared to pre-industrial levels, with signatories also conceding that their emission pledges, made in Copenhagen and now also enshrined in the UN document, need to go further if this is to be achieved.

"This is very important," said Mr Trio. "The recognition of the current gap between pledges and what is necessary offers opportunities for campaign groups to push governments to do more." Europe's ongoing debate about whether to move beyond its pledge to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent over the next decade, based on 1990 levels, is expected to re-start in earnest early next year.

Researchers from the Climate Action Tracker who were crunching numbers throughout the talks said global pledges so far set the world on track for a 3.2 degree centigrade temperature rise, far above what scientists say is acceptable. At the same time, the World Meteorological Organization announced earlier this month that 2010 is on tract to being in the top three warmest years since record taking began in 1850.

Countries at the Cancun talks also reached agreement on a major sticking point within the negotiations, the need to establish a set of rules for the measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of emission reductions. Prior to leaving Brussels, Ms Hedegaard said failure to move forward on the MRV issue could result in a breakdown of the talks, a reflection of European concerns that pledges from major polluters such as China might not be kept.

In Saturday's agreement nations also backed a global Green Fund to provide €100 billion a year to developing nations to fight climate change from 2020 onwards. As with many of the other issues however, tough questions such as where the money will come from still remain to be answered.

"Governments need to identify innovative sources of finance, such as levies on the currently unregulated international aviation and shipping sector, that would both address eight percent of global emissions while simultaneously securing billions of dollars in long-term financing," said Gordon Shepherd, head of WWF's Global Climate Initiative.

Progress was also made in establishing a plan for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD). The scheme is intended to channel money from rich countries to forested nations such as Indonesia and Brazil in order to slow deforestation, a major cause of global warming. REDD has attracted controversy however, with activists saying money is likely to flow into the hands of businesses rather than the local communities who need it.


Despite the relief at securing a tangible agreement in Cancun and avoiding a repeat of last year's disaster, analysts were quick to point out that many of the tough questions have merely been kicked into the future. EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard herself admitted that a huge amount of work remained to be carried out if a comprehensive package is to be achieved in South Africa.

"Everyone needs to be aware that we still have a long and challenging journey ahead of us to reach the goal of a legally binding global climate framework," she said.

Environmental NGO Friends of the Earth brandished the deal as "weak." "Real substance to prevent catastrophic climate change is missing," said Susann Scherbarth, a climate justice campaigner with the group.

Rich countries also failed to sign up to a second commitment period (post 2012) under the Kyoto Protocol, arguable the most significant omission from the Mexican package. While the world makes glacial progress towards an all encompassing deal on carbon emission cuts, developing nations are extremely keen to hang on to what already exists, especially as the Kyoto Protocol clearly outlines the greater effort richer countries must play in fighting climate change, which historically they created.

"They had to kick the Kyoto can down the road as delegates realised it was simply too big an issue to address," German Marshall Fund expert, Thomas Legge, told this website.

And as Mexican foreign secretary Patricia Espinosa sought to bring the process to close on Saturday morning, one country - Bolivia - was still unhappy with the final text. In the end Ms Espinosa overruled the Bolivian negotiator who repeatedly took the floor and insisted the agreement needed complete consensus, leading the South American country to brandish the deal as "tantamount to genocide."


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