COP16 report: Cancun can, actually

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Contrary to the expectations of many, the 16th annual UN Climate Conference (COP16) held in Cancun, Mexico, concluded in the early hours of Saturday morning to the sound of loud applause. After a difficult two weeks of negotiation, countries succeeded in delivering a 'balanced package' of decisions. UN climate chief Christiana Figueres said the outcome marked the start of a "new era" in international climate efforts.

Key outcomes include:

  • Establishment of a new ‘Global Green Fund'
  • Establishment of an Adaptation Framework
  • Establishment of a technology mechanism
  • Formal linkage for the first time of country mitigation pledges (both developed and developing) to a ‘COP' decision.
  • Elaboration of Mitigation, Reporting and Verification (MRV) and International Consultation and Analysis (ICA) procedures for both developed and developing countries
  • Agreement on a concrete REDD+ (deforestation) process
  • Various work plans or programmes to develop all of the above

These are all significant developments and represent a real step forward for the UNFCCC process. After much speculation over the future relevance of UN climate talks, the outcome provides a shot in the arm to international climate efforts specifically, and multilateralism in general.

There has been very broad support for the overall outcome. This has come from both developed and developing countries. The US, China, the EU, and India all expressed their strong support. Only Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia stated their opposition. Bolivia was particularly adamant in its opposition, attempting to block agreement on the outcome.

For a while, the situation on Saturday morning very much resembled the final hours of COP15. Then, a small contingent of countries (including all the above opposition) blocked agreement on the Copenhagen Accord. But in sharp contrast to COP15, the mood was very different in Cancun with the vast majority of countries applauding the numerous calls for agreement. Strong chairing from the Mexican Foreign Minister, Patricia Espinosa, ultimately prevailed over Bolivian opposition. Espinosa was rewarded with several standing ovations throughout the night in recognition of her diplomatic skills in guiding the conference to a successful conclusion.

Problem sorted, then?

So is this problem solved? Is success in Cancun enough to save the planet? No, definitely not. But its importance should not be underestimated. It paves the way for rebuilding trust in the UNFCCC process and delivering real progress on international climate action. A global deal in South Africa next year no longer looks quite like the long shot it did a month or so ago.

But the conference has certainly not delivered a perfect set of decisions. A lot of work will need to be done to provide flesh to the bones of the mechanism, framework, fund and processes that have been established. Early and substantive progress will be critical to maintaining the trust re-established in Mexico. The ‘Cancun Agreements' as they have been christened, nevertheless represent an important step forward from the Copenhagen Accord, not least because they have formal UNFCCC status.

There is also the small matter of the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Securing a commitment by developed countries to a second Kyoto commitment period (2CP) after 2012 was a key objective of developing countries going into Cancun. This was not achieved. Instead, countries agreed to extend the Protocol negotiations into 2011. This in theory keeps a 2CP alive, and keeps Japan and Russia, who firmly stated their opposition to any further Protocol commitments, engaged in the process. While something of a ‘fudge, it was a critical outcome to ensure that the overall negotiations did not fall over. It remains, however, a flashpoint for negotiations in 2011 and will clearly require resolution at some point.

Our initial reactions

Mark Kenber, CEO (designate): "Agreement in Cancun is a major shot in the arm to the international climate process. The Mexican government has led an impressive balancing act, rebuilding trust and reviving multilateral negotiations that were in real danger of permanent deadlock. Countries have recognized that tackling climate change is good for both their economies and the environment, and are vying to be at the forefront of a clean industrial revolution that will boost jobs and growth.

Cancun has sent a strong signal to the world that this revolution is now underway. The Cancun decisions address all the major issues on the table, including those that proved so contentious in Copenhagen, and should give business more of the certainty it needs to invest in the low carbon economy. Obviously, much work remains to be done, but we should see real collaboration on financing, technology, adaptation and forest protection. These will provide solid foundations for a new international climate deal".

Changhua Wu, Greater China Director: "The Cancun decision will positively reinforce the domestically set ambition in China to shift its economic growth towards a greener and lower carbon future. China's efforts in exploring a new development path through its 11th Five-Year Plan, which focuses on energy efficiency and alternative energy development, set a good example for others to follow. Low carbon growth is now broadly recognized as an opportunity rather than a burden globally. Such a shared vision will give Chinese government and businesses the needed confidence to continue their leading efforts in the upcoming 12th Five-Year Plan."

Amy Davidsen, US Director: "This deal could be a turning point for international cooperation on climate change. Countries showed a willingness to look beyond their established differences, and agree to much needed progress on technology, finance, adaptation, and forests. This will help lay the foundation for meaningful action on these actions going forward. The key now will be follow-through on the part of all countries. But today's agreement has sent a signal that a clean industrial revolution is underway."

Damian Ryan is senior policy manager at The Climate Group think tank

This article first appeared at The Climate Group website

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