Cancun Climate Agreement Wrap Up

The climate change talks in Cancun ended early Saturday with the 29-page Cancun Agreement. It isn’t binding, it isn’t complete, and it kicks the can on a number of issues, but there are some important lessons to be taken home from the Mayan Riviera.

Animating the Dead

International climate change negotiations were on life support leading up to the conference. But the talks in Cancun weren’t marred by the problems that undid Copenhagen. They were much more transparent and amicable. At the same time, expectations weren’t nearly as high as they were in Copenhagen. Yet in the closing hours of the conference, things came together in a pretty remarkable way.

Of the 194 countries to participate in the conference, 193 supported the agreement. The lone holdout was Bolivia, who saw the proposal as too limited. However, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, who presided over the talks, overruled Bolivia’s objections and the agreement was passed, giving a much-needed boost to negotiations.

Forests Are a Growing Idea

Going into Cancun, one of the only international climate change bright spots was the United Nation’s Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation plus other Forest-Related Activities (REDD+) program. And on that front, talks didn’t disappoint.

The Cancun Agreement formally recognizes REDD+ for the first time. Addressing deforestation is a major step forward for both climate change mitigation and biodiversity conservation. Tropical forests contain at least two-thirds of the world’s biodiversity and store over half the world’s carbon. Current activities from deforestation contribute 12-17% of global carbon emissions. Taking care of forests is one of the most important ways to address climate change.

But Take it with a Grain of Salt

While the Cancun Agreement signals a step forward, it’s not a big step by any means. A lot of crucial issues got glazed over to be dealt with at the conference next year in Durban, South Africa.

For example, the Kyoto Protocol, which limits developed countries’ carbon emissions (with the exception of the US, which didn’t sign it), is set to expire in 2012. Developing countries would like developed countries take up a second round of commitments.

But Russia and Japan have come out quite forcibly against this idea. Canada has hinted it would join them. Further, there are questions about the efficacy of Kyoto and whether the countries that signed on will actually meet their commitments.

For all the positive vibes at Cancun, there’s still a huge elephant in the room. The agreement looks to limit warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. Yet the emissions reductions proposed won’t meet that goal.

Right before the conference, the UN Environmental Programme released a report showing that the reductions proposed in Copenhagen and adopted in Cancun only account for about 60% of the reductions necessary to meet the stated goal. The report notes if all pledges were met, they’d still contribute to ““a temperature increase of between 2.5 to 5°C before the end of the century.”

This is exactly what Bolivia was protesting against in the final hours of the negotiation. When you put the Cancun Agreement in this context, praising it highly is like praising the mediocre healthcare bill that passed in the US last year. It just doesn’t do enough.

Finally, the agreement doesn’t really say how anything will be funded. From mitigation efforts to the Cancun Adaptation Framework to the Green Climate Fund, it’s al a mystery where the money will come from.

There was an uncomfortable moment earlier in Cancun when Guyana and Norway’s presidents were sharing a stage. Before Copenhagen, Norway and Guyana inked a deal that would pay Guyana $250 million to preserve its forest. Yet at Cancun, Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo noted that Guyana hadn’t seen any of the money Norway promised.

Making pledges to reduce emissions and commit money to climate change is great. But until there are set mechanisms to transfer that money and the funds are actually where they’re supposed to be, there’s a lot of potential for fallout.

It’s definitely not a perfect agreement. But between the slight progress at the international level and more proactive efforts to address climate change at the subnational level and in the private sector, there’s a little glimmer of hope.

Photo Credit: Flickr