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COP16 Cancún Climate Talks: Everything You Need to Know

Expectations for the Cancún climate talks in were low. Thankfully, outcomes surpassed expectations.

The Cancún climate talks have wrapped up with some surprising optimism and positivity. At COP16, parties collectively agreed to put aside for awhile the thornier issues—like specific emissions reductions targets and the "common but differentiated responsibilities" of developing and developed nations—that have long caused utter stalemate in the UNFCCC. Delegates approved, with necessary consensus, a set of decisions that formally recognize emissions pledges, create a Green Climate Fund, and launch a process to reduce deforestation in the tropics.

I say "necessary consensus," but the Bolivian delegation actually never supported the measure. In fact, some are saying that the COP chair's willingness to push these decisions through without unanimous consensus is a sign that the UNFCCC body actually is agile enough to be productive.

The so-called Cancún Agreements are actually two interim agreements: one that extends the Kyoto Protocol, and another that takes basic elements of the much-maligned Copenhagen Accord, and imports them into the official UNFCCC body.

This surely comes across as something of a "win" for the U.S. delegation, which a year ago basically force fed the Copenhagen Accord down throats around the world.

That said, reactions around the world have been pretty upbeat, from leaders and advocates alike. Expectations, of course, for the U.N. climate talks in Cancun were low, which helps explains the near universally positive reaction.

Alex Stark, who has been tracking the negotiations for TckTckTck, gave this telling account of the mood in the room when the decisions were agreed upon:

It’s hard to explain how exciting it felt to be in that room. We may not be making the deal here that saves the planet, but in the world of UN climate negotiations, near-unanimous agreement between developing and developed countries, applause and even spontaneous cheering are really quite unprecedented. For the first time since the Copenhagen conference one year ago, I’m genuinely confident that this process can prove to the world that it can be successful.


On Time's Ecocentric blog, Bryan Walsh pens a useful post breaking down five lessons we learned from Cancun. In short: multilateralism ain't dead; China is playing ball; Copenhagen's failures made Cancun's success possible; the focus is on forests; and, remember, the deal isn't all that great.

My bottom line takeaway is that Cancún proved that the UNFCCC could still be relevant, but they're going to need to achieve a heck of a lot more in South Africa at COP17 next year.

Enough from me. Here are some reactions from experts and advocates around the world:

Union of Concerned Scientists Director of Strategy and Policy Alden Meyer:

The outcome in Cancún wasn’t enough to save the climate, but it did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made.


Oxfam International Executive Director Jeremy Hobbs:

Negotiators have resuscitated the UN talks and put them on a road to recovery. This deal shows the UN negotiations can deliver. There is now hope for action to help the millions of poor people who are already struggling to survive the effects of climate change.

With lives on the line, we must now build on this progress. Long-term funding must be secured so the Climate Fund can start to deliver, helping vulnerable communities protect themselves for the climate impacts of today and tomorrow.

Gordon Shepherd, head of WWF’s Global Climate Initiative:

After Copenhagen governments came to Cancun bruised and facing public pressure to act on climate change. It was hoped that Cancun could establish a platform for progress, and now countries are leaving with a renewed sense of goodwill and some sense of purpose.

We need to see additional leadership from the European Union (EU) and other countries such as India and China on the legal form of an outcome. The EU and other countries need to also increase their mitigation commitments to close the gap between current emissions reduction pledges and what is required to reach their shared goal of limiting global warming to below 2°C.

The United States got off relatively easy in Cancun, failing to agree to robust reporting and review for its own actions. To build trust in the year ahead, the US should embark on a clear process to pull together its domestic efforts to reduce emissions into a transparent action plan that will put it on the road to a clean energy economy. The United States should then come to Durban ready to join the world in support of a legally binding agreement.

Jennifer Haverkamp, managing director of EDF's international climate program:

The conference pushed forward a modest, but important package of climate initiatives. The U.N. has now put its seal of approval on compensating countries for protecting their forests. And Mexico's skillful leadership here has helped to rebuild confidence in the UN process.

The overall outcome represents only a fraction of what's needed. Despite the best efforts by many countries, glaciers are still melting faster than this process is moving.

Nick Mabey, CEO of E3G:

This is a lifeline for the international climate talks. The Cancun package provides the green shoots which can grow into a global deal. Cancun was always going to be a staging post on the road to a final outcome. After the disappointment in Copenhagen, this year was about injecting political energy and reaching agreement on key mechanisms. On both counts Cancun has scored well.

This proves that all those who doubted the multilateral system were completely wrong. The UNFCCC is back at the heart of shaping the global response to climate change.


Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director of the National Wildlife Federation:

Progress was made on a number of important issues, but it’s clear the Senate’s failure to pass clean energy legislation tied the hands of negotiators to come to a full global deal. Formally recognizing the Copenhagen reduction targets – including the U.S. 17 percent reductions by 2020 - still leaves the world woefully short of what needs to be done to tackle the climate crisis.


BlueGreen Alliance executive director David Foster:

After two weeks of negotiations, a balanced path has been put forward, including progress on reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, adaptation to climate change, technology transfer, the development of a green climate fund, and — most importantly — measuring, reporting and verification. In addition, the inclusion of just transition and decent work in the Shared Vision is a critical factor in a global climate agreement to ensure that this transition to a clean energy economy preserves and creates good jobs.


Christoph Bals, political director at Germanwatch:

We have seen though that the consensus-based process within the UN alone will not be able to channel the necessary dynamic in international climate politics with a US administration more or less incapable of action. Further dynamics have to be reached through additional frontrunner coalitions among countries, communities and businesses. Acting, negotiating and building coalitions is the essential triptych.


Finally, if you would like even more nuance, check out the OneClimate interview with Antonio Hill of Oxfam, an international climate policy expert whose perspective I very much trust and admire:


Photo by Alex Stark for Adopt a Negotiator

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