Cancun Climate Talks: An Insider's Account So What Happened at the Cancun Climate Talks Anyway? An Insider's Account

Get a look at the inner workings of U.N. climate negotiations from somewhat who sat through all the boring meetings, and the frantic final ones too.


The Cancun climate talks (aka COP16) were celebrated by many as a success (see our roundup of reactions), at least compared to last year's brutal and embarrassing flop in Copenhagen. Here is a comprehensive and thorough (and extraordinarily long, for a blog) report on the ground from Alex Stark, our "insider" at the talks from TckTckTck's Adopt A Negotiator project.

The atmosphere in the plenary meeting at 3:00 a.m. on Saturday was electric as countries entered the final stages of negotiations, hoping to reach a climate deal under the auspices of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. After a long year of work, as well as two weeks of intense negotiations in Cancun itself, parties to the convention were about to defy almost every expectation about the conference’s results held by the global media, international civil society and even the negotiators themselves. Applause, standing ovations, cheers, and even some teary eyes followed each speech, as country after country rose to demand that the Conference of the Parties (COP) accept the final negotiating text as an official decision.

The last day of negotiations was a rollercoaster of tension, a highly unusual atmosphere for the usually lackluster talks. The morning was scheduled to begin with a final stocktaking plenary at 8:30, which was perpetually delayed until the evening. In the meantime, everyone eagerly awaited the release of the final draft of the negotiating text, which would definitively show for the first time where the issues stood after two weeks of often opaque negotiations. NGO observers, the media, and even the negotiators themselves milled nervously outside in the Cancun sunshine, huddling to whisper in small clusters, until the text was released in the late afternoon. Many feared that the text would fail to reach compromises on some of the most contentious issues, and even through Friday afternoon there were fears that the entire 18-year UNFCCC process was in danger of collapse. But the stampede in front of the document center quickly gave way to a kind of calm surprise, as many NGO groups reported back that, actually, most provisions of the text seemed quite reasonable. Of course, there were still fears of negotiators blocking its passage. Head of the U.S. delegation Jonathan Pershing remarked to me that there were some parts of the text that he really liked and others that would need work.

As a result, the overflowing crowd that packed the plenary hall at the opening of the final negotiating sessions late on Friday evening was tense. The proceedings showed that the afternoon’s drama had only been a prelude, as country after country rose to speak, endorsing the text. Even the Alliance of Small-Island States, usually a bugbear of the climate negotiations, endorsed the decision, and Algeria spoke on behalf of the group of African states, saying “Africa has spoken with one voice,” and “would like to support the text.” And the head delegate for the United States, Todd Stern, usually bland in his public statements, proclaimed “let’s get this deal done.” Most movingly, Kenya asked the assembled countries to accept the deal, giving a “plea to allow Cancun to send a message of hope to the world.” One more intense moment of drama ensued, as Bolivia registered its absolute opposition to the text and stated that it could never be adopted through the consensus process. Yet even traditional Bolivia allies like Colombia rose to defend the text, saying that “one country should not hold a veto over the entire process,” and eventually COP President Patricia Espinosa gaveled through the decisions. And so, around 4:00 a.m., the Cancun Agreements were officially adopted by the Conference of the Parties.

The Cancun Agreements are not earth-shattering in either their scope or ambition, but they do represent an incredibly important step along the path to a fair, ambitious, and binding legal agreement in Durban, South Africa in December 2011. The Cancun Agreements represent what negotiators often refer to as a “balanced package of decisions” on some of the more concrete issues under the Framework Convention, such as finance and technology transfer. The decisions sketch the broad outlines of some specific steps that the international community must implement to help fight the worst effects of climate change, and set up the first building blocks for a final agreement on emissions reduction.

The Agreements establish a Green Climate Fund that will be administered by a board chosen by the UNFCCC and under the authority of the COP, although the World Bank will serve as trustee. The Fund will serve as a mechanism to provide support to developing countries for adaptation and mitigation programs. Developing countries will get an equal voice on the governing board of the Fund, which is good news for them. However, developed countries only reiterated the pledges that they made in Copenhagen to raise $30 billion in “fast start finance” by 2012 and $100 billion per year by 2020, a non-binding promise that is considered inadequate for the needs of developing countries in coping with the climate crisis.

The Cancun Agreements contain provisions to set up two other boards, one for adaptation and a technology executive committee to help developing countries acquire clean energy technology, but they were unable to work out the details of intellectual property rights and where and how a technology center and network would be set up. They also endorse the United Nations’ program to limit deforestation in developing countries, reducing emissions from deforestation and land degradation (called REDD), but did not work out some of the more minute details on whether developed countries will be able to offset their own emissions by contributing to the program.

On mitigation, the Cancun Agreements were able to solve one of the trickiest issues plaguing the UNFCCC process since Copenhagen: transparency. Countries agreed to a set of principles on “monitoring, reporting and verification” of their emissions programs and whether they have reached their reductions goals, measures that will build trust on the road to Durban. Countries also inscribed their own emissions reduction targets formally under the Convention, which they failed to do in Copenhagen, but these pledges are not legally binding yet. According to scientists, they would also add up to a 3.2 degrees Celsius temperature rise over time, which is above the 2 degree limit that is commonly taken as a threshold for catastrophic climate-induced changes.

These results in and of themselves may not seem particularly impressive considering the length and intensity of the process to get there. But more important than the deal itself was the intangible effects of what happened in Cancun, witnessed by the thunderous applause on the plenary floor. The Cancun Agreements are notable not so much for their actual accomplishments as for the unexpectedly positive atmosphere that they created inside of the UN negotiations themselves. The outcome of the 2009 COP in Copenhagen threatened to unravel the 18-year-long UNFCCC process, when countries were unable to agree even to a non-binding outcome in the Copenhagen Accord, falling far short of the high expectations for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol that would bind every country in the world. Worse than the outcome, however, was the atmosphere of the negotiations at the Copenhagen Conference, when heads of state from the most powerful countries thrashed out an agreement behind closed doors in the last 24 hours of the negotiations. Developing countries denounced the agreement as undemocratic, non-transparent and unfair, and any trust that had existed between developed and developing countries was effectively shattered.

The Cancun talks restored this sense of trust amongst the parties. Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres welcomed the agreements, saying:

Cancun has done its job … nations have shown they can work together under a common roof, to reach consensus on a common cause. They have shown that consensus in a transparent and inclusive process can create opportunity for all.

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These were not empty words, but a testament that the cheering on the plenary floor bore witness to. Much of the credit for this accomplishment goes to the Mexican Presidency of this year’s COP, headed by foreign minister Patricia Espinosa. While the Danish presidency was accused of masterminding the closed-door “secret text” negotiations, the Mexicans affirmed over and over that the negotiations would continue to be transparent and that no secret text existed. Indian minister Jairam Ramesh even went so far as to call Espinosa a “goddess” in the final, tipsy hours of the talks in honor of her exemplary leadership. The Swiss representative said that Espinosa had “single-handedly been able to transform the atmosphere of distrust” at the talks, while Australia noted that the agreements “represent a significant win for multilateralism.” In an atmosphere where the smallest rumor or media report can shift the dynamics of the talks and cause mistrust between parties to blossom, Espinosa’s leadership played an essential role in keeping the talks on track. This sense of trust has provided a huge boost to the UNFCCC process, and is a very encouraging sign in light of the Durban talks next year, in which countries hope to finalize a binding emissions reduction agreement.

Of course, there are still some essential problems that will need to be worked out before South Africa. Perhaps most notably, countries will have to have a frank discussion on what legal form a “Durban Protocol” agreement will take. Right now, there are two negotiating tracks for a future agreement: the Kyoto Protocol track, and a working group on Long-term Cooperative Action which incorporates those who haven’t ratified Kyoto, such as the United States. Furthermore, large developing economies like China do not want their emissions pledges to be legally binding, while the United States says it cannot sign an agreement if that is the case. With the United States and others refusing to sign on to Kyoto, countries will have to decide what a new protocol treaty will look like. Hopefully the Cancun Agreements will provide the building blocks of trust so that countries know they can negotiate with one another on this and other contentious issues in good faith.

Finally, we should be cautious about being too elated with this result. The Cancun Agreements are not nearly enough to save the planet from the worst effects of climate change, especially the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. We cannot allow negotiators to rest on their laurels in the next year leading up to Durban, and they must get to work on the important issues that remain before they can sign a binding, comprehensive, fair, and ambitious deal there. The good news here is that leaders won’t be able to talk down the Durban conference like they did in Cancun. Leaders have already declared that they are looking for a binding deal in Cancun. Our job over the next year of interesessionals and diplomacy is to make sure that they stick to their word.

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