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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Future of Climate Change

Cancun Talks Yield Climate Compromise

The world largely endorses the Copenhagen Accord as a path forward for combating climate change, but postpones tough decisions for future talks



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Elements of last year's Copenhagen Accord moved a step closer to reality as two weeks of talks concluded in Cancun this week with a new consensus on the path forward for international negotiations to combat climate change. Over the objections of Bolivia, the so-called Cancun Agreements text was adopted by more than 190 countries, setting the stage for ongoing negotiations on subjects ranging from greenhouse gas emission cuts from industrialized and developing countries to rules for reducing deforestation.

"Ideas that were, first of all, just skeletal last year and weren't approved now are approved and elaborated," said lead U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern at a press conference in Cancun following the adoption. "Obviously this package is not going to solve climate change by itself, but it is a good step forward."

The compromise text is meant to serve as the blueprint for the path to a future binding climate treaty to supplant the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That protocol continues to be backed by those countries already experiencing climate change impacts but the U.S. never signed on to it (Kyoto set binding targets, an average of a 5 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions against 1990 levels, for 37 industrialized countries, including the E.U., Japan, Canada and Russia, for the years 2008–12.) The new agreement is modeled on the Copenhagen Accord—backed by the largest nations in the world that are also the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, including China and the U.S.

The Copenhagen Accord represented a commitment to: reduce global emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050; provide $30 billion for adaptation and mitigation actions in poor countries; and establish a climate fund, among other things. The Cancun Agreements both officially recognize those elements, and others, of the Copenhagen Accord but also incorporate greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets for developing countries—some amount below what emissions would otherwise be in 2020 if nothing were done—into international climate negotiations for the first time. At the same time, a draft version of the final text reaffirms "that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities…and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow."

"Green Climate Fund" aid money, to be overseen by the World Bank, will pay for GHG emission–reduction efforts or be used to assist poor countries in efforts to adapt to climate change's ongoing impact, such as droughts or floods. "Adaptation must be addressed with the same priority as mitigation," the Cancun compromise avers—a shift that prioritizes adapting to ongoing climate change as much as mitigating it.

The draft text also implements $30 billion in funding—to be drawn from developed countries by 2012 to assist developing countries in adapting to climate change. At the same time, the agreement officially recognizes the emission-reduction pledges of developed countries made as part of the Copenhagen Accord. Those nations collectively represent 80 percent of the world's emissions of greenhouse gases to date.

An analysis by the United Nations Environment Programme states that such emission reductions are not sufficient to stave off climate change—by 2020 the world would require at least five billion metric tons more in pollution cuts compared to current pledges.
And the draft text is full of holes as well as promises to tackle hard issues in the future, such as the actual fate of the Kyoto Protocol. During the Cancun negotiations, countries that had signed that protocol—such as Russia and Japan—indicated they were unwilling to sign on to a successor.

But those countries are willing to move forward under the terms of the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun compromise text in essence gives a U.N. blessing to that agreement.

Additionally, a deal was made on how to pay developing countries to preserve their forests—a program known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD). "After years of conversation, we now have a global framework for action to halt deforestation, provide for adaptation by vulnerable human and natural communities and reverse dangerous climate challenges," Fred Boltz, senior vice president off global strategies for Conservation International, said in a prepared statement.

Of course, climate change is not waiting for the outcome of all this negotiating hot air. The NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies released temperature data on Friday showing that 2010 boasted the warmest average temperatures worldwide since record-keeping began in the 19th century—a consequence of global warming and an El Nino. As geoscientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University in Lubbock notes, ongoing greenhouse gas emissions have committed the world to at least [a] 1.5-degree Celsius warming from pre-Industrial levels—a number that the Cancun Agreements urge consideration of as a future target "on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge."

And that is a mere 0.5 degree Celsius below what the Copenhagen Accord—and Cancun compromise text—promise to avert.

One thing the Cancun compromise conspicuously lacks is mandatory targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions, preferring to "take note" of pledges to be published in a separate document. But the agreements do explicitly urge "developed country parties to increase the ambition of their economy-wide emission reduction targets."

"This agreement was a remarkable turnaround for a multilateral approach to address climate change, including commitments on emissions from all the world's major economies," said Jennifer Morgan, climate and energy director for the World Resources Institute, an environmental group, in a statement. But "ultimately, the world will need to take bolder steps to tackle the challenges of climate change."

And it remains unclear what exactly the U.S. will be able to do to meet its commitment to the Cancun Agreement. President Obama explicitly has committed the U.S. to a 17 percent reduction from 2005 greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020 as well as funding support for climate change action. But many of his political opponents dispute the reality of climate change as well as any funding to fight it. A letter from four Republican senators to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned that "we remain opposed to the U.S. commitment to full implementation of the Copenhagen Accord, which will transfer billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to developing nations in the name of climate change."

Nevertheless, "governments have given a clear signal that they are headed towards a low-emissions future together," Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a prepared statement following the talks. And the Cancun compromise at least allows for negotiations to continue next year in Durban, South Africa.

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