Sunday

24th Jan 2021

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

"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.

Criticism

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."

EU's 2021 fishing quotas to exceed scientific advice

EU minister for fisheries have agreed on fishing opportunities for 2021, with provisional quotas for the fish stocks shared with the UK. However, experts warned that some of these quotas will lead to overfishing "with detrimental effects on fish populations".

MEPs push for limited 'right-to-repair' on consumer devices

The MEPs's report asked the EU Commission to "consider" labelling products and services according to their durability and estimated lifespan - but only to examine so-called "planned obsolescence." The parliament plenary will vote in November.

EU welcomes Japan's 2050 climate-neutrality pledge

EU leaders welcomed new Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga's pledge to achieve climate-neutrality by 2050 - a move that puts Tokyo's plans on the same timeline as Europe and a decade ahead of China.

Ministers back EU-wide 2050 climate goal, not by country

EU environment ministers reached on Friday a partial agreement on the bloc's climate law, pending a decision by EU leaders on the updated 2030 target. While none of the 27 EU countries rejected the bill, Bulgaria decided to abstain.

EU seeks to renovate 35 million buildings by 2030

The European Commission unveiled the EU's "renovation wave", aimed at doubling the renovation rate of existing buildings in the decade, and creating five new 'European Bauhaus' hubs across the EU, where architects and engineers can collaborate on green projects.

News in Brief

  1. Hungary buys Russia's Sputnik V vaccine
  2. Netherlands imposes curfew to halt new corona variant
  3. Green NGO fails to stop Europe's biggest gas burner
  4. Swedish minister reminds Europe of Russia's war
  5. Spain: Jesuit order apologises for decades of sexual abuse
  6. NGOs urge Borrell to address Egypt rights 'crisis'
  7. EU conflict-area education aid favours boys
  8. EU told to avoid hydrogen in building renovations

Livestream

Live: Join the Nordic climate debate 'Choosing Green'

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has stalled climate negotiations, work has not stopped. The 'Choosing Green' debate will address some of the most important and most complex key areas relating to the global green transition. Live on EUobserver from 10:00 (CET).

Green Deal

Timmermans 'disappointed' with ongoing CAP reform

For European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans, the Common Agricultural Policy has to answer to "higher expectations" on climate action, protection of biodiversity and environmental sustainability, while ensuring a fair income for all farmers.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  2. CESIKlaus Heeger and Romain Wolff re-elected Secretary General and President of independent trade unions in Europe (CESI)
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersReport: The prevalence of men who use internet forums characterised by misogyny
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic climate debate on 17 November!
  6. UNESDAMaking healthier diets the easy choice

Latest News

  1. EU leaders keep open borders, despite new corona variant risk
  2. EU and Cuba appeal for Biden to open up
  3. Portugal's EU presidency marks return of corporate sponsors
  4. MEPs chide Portugal and Council in EU prosecutor dispute
  5. EU warns UK to be 'very careful' in diplomatic status row
  6. A digital euro - could it happen?
  7. US returns to climate deal and WHO, as EU 'rejoices'
  8. Big tech: From Trump's best friend to censorship machine?

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us