Cancun Agreements put 193 nations on track to deal with climate change

Nearly 200 nations were represented Monday as the U.N.-sponsored climate talks started in Cancun, Mexico. A central question: Can they achieve enough to keep the negotiations alive?
By Juliet Eilperin and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 7:07 PM

CANCUN, MEXICO - Delegates from 193 nations agreed Saturday on a new global framework to help developing countries curb their carbon output and cope with the effects of climate change, but they postponed the harder question of precisely how industrialized and major emerging economies will share the task of making deeper greenhouse-gas emission cuts in the coming decade.

The package known as the Cancun Agreements has salvaged a U.N.-backed process that was close to failure, delivering a diplomatic victory to the talks' Mexican hosts. But it also highlighted the obstacles that await as countries continue to grapple with climate change through broad international negotiations.

After an all-night session that included a face-off between Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa and Bolivia's U.N. ambassador, Pablo Solon, members of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) agreed to create a "Green Climate Fund" that will transfer money from rich countries to poor ones; research centers that will ease the transfer of clean-energy technology; and a system in which developing nations can be compensated for keeping rain forests intact.

"Cancun has done its job," UNFCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said in a statement. "Nations have shown they can work together under a common roof, to reach consensus on a common cause."

But the outcome left some gaping holes, including spelling out exactly how the new pot of international aid will be funded and whether the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the current global climate pact, will be extended once its first commitment period expires in 2012. Signatories such as Japan and Russia oppose an extension because the United States, China and India are not bound to mandatory emission reductions under Kyoto.

Akira Yamada, Japan's deputy director general for global issues, said the current Kyoto framework amounted to having big emitters act as "spectators" while the rest of the industrialized world played a soccer match. "We would hope they would come down to the field to play with us, to score against global warming," Yamada said.

The new framework encapsulates the current commitments that both industrialized and developing nations have made to cut their carbon emissions over the next decade, though it notes that these will not meet the agreed-upon goal of keeping the rise in global temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels. To achieve that, industrialized countries would have cut their emissions between 25 and 40 percent compared with 1990 levels in the next decade, as opposed to the 16 percent they have promised.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said delegates have "bought themselves some time" but will face an even tougher negotiation next year in Durban, South Africa. "The big issues are still unaddressed," he said.

Still, the agreement cemented and fleshed out key elements of the Copenhagen Accord, the controversial deal brokered among President Obama and the leaders of China, India, Brazil and South Africa in a closed meeting last year. That pact was not formally adopted by the U.N. body after a handful of Latin American countries raised objections, but it established the idea that major developing countries would subject voluntary emissions cuts to international scrutiny while the industrialized world would mobilize $100 billion in climate aid for poor nations by 2020.

"The reality is we really got what we were looking for," said U.S. special climate envoy Todd Stern in an interview Saturday. On issues such as forests, financing and scrutiny of major emitters' carbon reductions, he said, "we got good, substantive decisions on all of those things."

Michael Levi, senior follow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an e-mail that while "most of the important work of cutting emissions will be driven outside the U.N. process," the Cancun agreement "should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to: it focuses on those areas where the U.N. process has the most potential to be useful, and avoids others where the U.N. process is a dead end."

Some elements of the deal, including one known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, could have an immediate impact on curbing carbon emissions. The new language establishes rules for calculating how much carbon is stored in forest stocks vulnerable to logging or burning, along with safeguards for rain-forest dwellers and biodiversity.

Rebecca Chacko, who directs climate policy for the advocacy group Conservation International, said this "basic framework" is "going to inspire countries to really ramp up the financing immediately" for forest preservation, as well as open the door to more private funding.

In the end, Mexico was able to pull off what the president of the Center for Clean Air Policy, Ned Helme, called a negotiating "tour de force" by asking delegates what was most important to them and what they could compromise on. The Mexicans finally won over everyone - except Solon, who complained about everything from future climate targets to his treatment by checkpoint security guards.

In an interview, Espinosa said: "We were feeling very uncomfortable, because Bolivia is a very close friend to the Mexican people. We share a lot with Bolivia. Both countries have many indigenous peoples. We both have forests. So being so far apart was difficult for us."

President Felipe Calderon in an interview Saturday morning called the late-night conclusion, with its repeated applause for Mexico and its appeals to save humanity, "a very emotional night for all of us."

Minutes later, at a breakfast by the sea for the Mexican delegation, Calderon hoisted a cold beer and dug into his tacos, after being hailed as the world's new leader on climate change.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company