“Tangible” (if Minor) Progress in Cancun

Photo: Gretchen Weber

The UN climate talks in Cancun finally closed in the wee hours of Saturday morning with an agreement that doesn’t set new limits on greenhouse gases, but does move the discussion forward in key areas, such as funding to help developing nations deal with climate change and broad plans to reduce emissions by slowing deforestation in tropical areas.

Elliot Diringer, Vice President for International Strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, called the Cancun talks “the most tangible progress in the UN climate talks in years.”

Perhaps the most important thing to come out of the talks was that they seemed to have salvaged the UN process itself.  Expectations were low for Cancun, and in the halls throughout the conference, there was ongoing speculation that perhaps the problem of climate change is just too complicated to expect all countries to agree on solutions.  But early Saturday, every country except Bolivia signed onto the new agreement, many betting that some progress was better than none.

“Countries that before insisted on binding-or-nothing were willing to declare a package of incremental steps a major success – if for no other reason than to keep intact the process they desperately hope will deliver much more down the road,” wrote Diringer in an email to reporters.

Trust was in short supply after Copenhagen, which ended with the Copenhagen Accord, an agreement written outside the formal UN process and created behind closed doors with just a few countries, including the United States, at the table. In the end, the full conference voted to formally “take note of” the accord, not quite a ringing endorsement.

Rumors circulated repeatedly in Cancun about “secret texts,” which the Mexican government took pains to refute. Patricia Espinosa, the minister of foreign affairs for Mexico and president of the convention, repeatedly stressed the importance of transparency, earning her several standing ovations during the final sessions.  As Bryan Walsh notes in his informative “Five Lessons to Learn from the UN Cancun Climate Summit” post at Time.com, “Just about every country other than Bolivia seemed to leave reasonably happy.”

The web is flooded with commentary about the Cancun talks, but here are a couple suggestions for getting up to speed.  Sunday’s Los Angeles Times had a good  front-page article about the outcome of the talks, and Mother Jones has a comprehensive piece cataloging various immediate reactions to it.  There’s also this “reality check”  from Marc Gunther, which makes the point that while all this “groundwork” is being laid, emissions continue to rise.

Coming into the conference, one of the most hopeful areas for consensus was an agreement on “REDD+”, a strategy for reducing emissions from deforestation, which accounts for between 12% and 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions.  While it does start the process for an international system for REDD, the “Cancun Agreements” punt the hard work of figuring out the details to next year’s conference in Durbin, South Africa.  As I explain in my radio piece for The California Report, California is already moving ahead with plans of its own on this front, through agreements with provinces in Mexico and Brazil.

  • S.W. Ela

    Dear Ms. Weber:

    Thanks for your excellent reporting this week from Cancun. And, excellent photos, too! Your work is another fine example of why I find the whole KQED media bundle indispensable.

    Steve Ela

  • http://www.kqed.org/climatewatch Gretchen Weber

    That’s great to hear. Thanks for reading, listening, and watching!