Cancun Talks End With Agreement to Push For Greater Emissions Cuts, Verify Actions

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CANCUN, Mexico--Negotiators from 194 countries concluded two weeks of climate talks here Dec. 11, with the adoption of a series of agreements that recognize the need to make deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, to provide a foundation for broad forest protection, and to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

The Cancun Agreements also included measures for developing nations to report their greenhouse gas emissions and to have their actions to curb emissions verified, a provision long pushed by the United States, which has said that strong requirements to measure, report, and verify developing nations' actions should be part of any global climate deal.

Overall, the agreements call for limiting the global rise in temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial levels and a review of that goal, and a possible tightening starting in 2013. The Cancun texts also set a collective goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2020 and recognized the need for countries to “raise the level of the emissions reductions” to achieve those goals.

But delegates at the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP-16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change did not detail how the stepped-up emissions reductions would be achieved nor include any mechanism to ensure countries are cutting emissions. In addition, the texts lacked any explicit acknowledgement that there is a significant gap between the pledged commitments from industrialized and developing countries to curb rising emissions and the level of cuts needed to keep global temperatures from rising above the 2 degree C target.

Green Fund

The agreement did set up a Green Fund to disburse the $100 billion a year expected to be collected by 2020 to help the most vulnerable poor countries with low-carbon development and to help them adapt to rising sea levels and other climate change effects. The plenary officially agreed to provide at least $100 billion per year in funding to be distributed by the new Green Fund, formalizing language that first appeared in last year’s Copenhagen Accord. But additional language requiring that the funding be new and not drawn from other foreign aid projects was absent from the final texts.

“Cancun has done its job,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said. “The beacon of hope has been reignited, and faith in the multilateral climate change … has been restored,” she said. Negotiators “have shown that consensus in a transparent and inclusive process can create opportunity” for future agreements to address increasing global temperatures and rising sea levels.

Addressing the main plenary shortly before it adjourned Dec. 11, Mexican President Felipe Calderon said the conference helped to “re-establish confidence” in the multilateral process. “In Cancun, you have all achieved a great success,” Calderon told delegates. “We need to go farther in the future, but here we have made an important step.”

Verification of Emissions Every Two Years

The agreements, made up in part of the outcome of the negotiating track known as the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action (AWG-LCA), will implement a registry for developing nations to record pledges to reduce their emissions, Figueres said.

Under the agreements, developing nations such as China and India would have to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions and submit the actions they take to address their emissions to independent verification, with the assumption that they would contribute to global action by at least slowing the growth of their emissions.

The agreements called for verification of actions supported by international assistance, and progress reports on those actions every two years. By contrast, domestic efforts by China and other rapidly developing nations that do not get such technical or financial assistance could be verified domestically.

A separate ad-hoc group, representing nations that agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, reached a deal to continue negotiations with the aim of ensuring there is no gap after the protocol's first emissions reduction commitment period expires at the end of 2012.

U.S. Special Climate Envoy Todd Stern said he was satisfied with the “overall package” of results, and several observers noted that the language calling for international verification of internal emissions reduction initiatives was much closer to the United States’ initial stance on the subject than to the opposing position held by China.

“The U.S. did very well in Cancun; it got off very easy,” said Tara Rao from World Wildlife Fund International. “I would not expect that trend to continue next year.”

Contrast With Previous COP Meetings

While the U.N. talks were scheduled to conclude Dec. 10, the negotiating texts were shuttled back and forth into the early hours of Dec. 11, between the high-level plenary and two working groups before they were formally adopted by the Conference of the Parties, which represents the 194 nations that negotiate actions to address climate change under the U.N. framework convention.

In the wake of back-to-back COP meetings--in Poznan, Poland, in 2008 and Copenhagen in 2009--that made limited progress, there had been speculation heading into Cancun that the value of large-scale meetings like this one might have run its course.

In her press briefing after the result, Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, said, “We have proven that multilateralism can indeed yield results.”

Negotiators in Cancun were quick to credit Mexico for efficiently directing talks on multiple fronts, which can now serve as the basis for a future binding climate deal.

A binding agreement is still at least a year or more away, but getting agreement on the half-dozen or so key issues in Cancun established hope for significant progress in November 2011, when climate negotiators will resume high-level talks at COP-17 in Durban, South Africa.

Agreements 'Restore Credibility'

While the Cancun Agreements fell far short of what is needed, the negotiations “did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Meyer said the collective actions pledged by countries, however, are still insufficient to drive down global emissions, which are projected to rise for the coming decade.

There are still major hurdles to a future deal, Meyer said, including recent declarations by both Japan and Russia that they have no intention of taking on emissions reduction targets when the Kyoto Protocol's current commitment period expires at the end of 2012.

The National Wildlife Federation pointed to significant progress in the Cancun Agreements to address deforestation and to restore degraded forests, as well as the establishment of the Green Fund to help the most vulnerable nations adapt to rising sea levels and other climate change effects.

“While the process is cumbersome at times, the U.N.’s Framework Convention remains our best forum for convening global powers to solve a massive global problem,” according to Barbara Bramble, NWF's senior international affairs adviser. “But by not getting more done in Cancun, we are raising the stakes at the next round of talks in South Africa.”

Need for Binding Treaty

“Ultimately we need a comprehensive binding climate treaty,” said Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. He said there remain “fundamental differences among countries over how and when we get there.”

In Cancun, negotiators “were willing to put those differences aside for now and agree on incremental steps” to ready near-term action on climate change “and lay the foundation for binding commitments down the road,” Diringer said.

All told, environmental groups said, the result in Cancun was strong enough to renew confidence in the U.N. process, but they warned that 2011 would have to be more productive than this year to achiever a successful result in South Africa.

“Cancun is not the end of the long walk,” Matthias Duwe, director of Climate Action Network-Europe, said after the close of the talks. “The political will for drastic action is still not strong enough for an adequate global response to the threat of climate chaos.”

Talks Overcome Bolivian Opposition

The result in Cancun was reached despite repeated objections from Bolivia. The South American country opposed adoption of the texts at almost every turn, calling the documents “a step backward” and “dishonest.”

Among the country's main objections were that the agreements would not reduce global emissions significantly enough and that parties should have pledged to keep global temperatures within 1 degree C of pre-industrial levels, rather than the 2 C target that was adopted. Bolivia also objected to the prospect of allowing industrialized countries to purchase some carbon emissions credits from forest protection efforts in lieu of cutting their own emissions.

Pablo Salon, Bolivia’s ambassador to the United Nations and the head of the Bolivian delegation in Cancun, argued that it was “illegal to adopt the texts over Bolivia’s objections” because of rules requiring a “consensus” for all COP decisions.

But Patricia Espinosa, the Mexican foreign minister who also served as the COP-16 president, said “consensus” did not require unanimity.

“Consensus does not mean that one country can block the great work done here by so many countries,” Espinosa said to loud applause. In the end, the Cancun texts were adopted over Bolivia’s objections but, in some cases, Bolivia's dissenting vote was noted.

U.N. legal experts said after the meeting that rules defining “consensus” had never been adopted by the COP and that that would be a priority in 2011 to avoid similar conflicts at next year’s meeting.

Two-Treaty Approach Going Forward?

The final agreements out of Cancun set the stage for a two-treaty approach going toward the post-2012 period, but they do not guarantee that result.

According to Hedegaard, the outcome “leaves the door open” to use future results from the LCA working group as an emissions reduction mechanism that would cover actions from a wider group of countries than those that agreed to the Kyoto Protocol. On the Kyoto track, the Ad-hoc Working Group on the Kyoto Protocol (AWG-KP) could either extend the protocol's 2008-2012 compliance period or establish a new compliance period to act as a bridge until the LCA result could go into effect.

But that interpretation was far from unanimous.

Stern, head of the U.S. delegation, said in his end-of-the-meeting briefing that a legally binding framework “would come eventually” but would not necessarily be ready to go into force on Jan. 1, 2013.

Delegates from Japan said they would continue to push for a single agreement based on the LCA track, which would require action by a wider range of countries, rather than the three dozen countries that currently have obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. Meanwhile, delegates from poorer countries said they believed a full extension of the Kyoto Protocol, perhaps with a broader scope, was the best result.

That debate will be one of the main topics for negotiations next year, delegates and U.N. officials told BNA.

Sol Oyuela from Christian Aid said the AWG-LCA track will take center stage next year. “The process will really have to focus on providing more clarity for the LCA track in the coming months,” she said.

Significant Progress on REDD

One highlight of the Cancun decisions was long-awaited action on reducing deforestation and forest degradation, which accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The COP decisions out of Cancun marked the first step to create a formal forest protection program, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD).

Gus Silva-Chavez, a climate forest specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund, told BNA that a broad consensus emerged in the final day of negotiations over the REDD agreement, which called on the world's nations to work together “to slow, halt, and reverse forest cover and carbon loss.” It also set policies for heavily forested developing nations such as Brazil and Indonesia to develop national strategies to protect forests.

“As far as progress, it's more than incremental--for the first time, you have two pages of text that is going to have the U.N. seal of approval of the basic elements of a REDD framework,” Silva-Chavez said late Dec. 10, as the REDD and other climate decisions went before high-level negotiators.

“There is a global goal of reducing emissions from deforestation, national and sub-national accounting, and strong environmental and social safeguards for indigenous [populations] and ways for countries to report on all of this,” he said.

The only major objections to the REDD decision came from Bolivia, which balked in the final days of negotiations over the prospect that the forest protection program could be a first step toward including such programs in carbon emissions trading.

“Negotiators have said today, from the Africa Group, G-77 [Group of 77 developing nations], the U.S., everybody has pretty much been looking at each other and saying, 'Wow, this is quite ambitious,' ” Silva-Chavez said. “Everyone is pretty happy with it, and the feeling is, let's get it over with.”

Interim Subnational Actions Allowed

The REDD decision, known as Policy Approaches and Positive Incentives on Issues Relating to Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, also set the stage to allow for “subnational” actions by states, provinces, and other local governments to protect forestland. Those would be allowed--at least in the initial years of the program--to count toward a nation's overall forest protection effort.

Subnational actions could be counted “as an interim measure,” according to the text, signaling that the ultimate goal of REDD will be to recognize only national efforts to reduce deforestation.

The REDD text represented a victory for many environmental groups that have seen forest protection language stripped out of the last several rounds of U.N. climate negotiations, including at the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009.

Brazil climate negotiator Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado told reporters hours before the final negotiations concluded that Brazil, one of the key voices on the REDD issue, was satisfied with the text. The next step, he said, is “the whole issue of long-term financing for REDD, which will be the object of further negotiations.”

“We need many sources, different sources” to fund REDD efforts, the Brazil negotiator said, with projected public and private financing falling well short of what is needed to launch a global program with enough support to protect forestland and restore degraded forests.

No Final Decision on Carbon Capture in CDM

The issue of whether to allow for carbon emissions credits to be granted under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) for investments in carbon capture and storage technology concluded with a step toward approval. But further decisions will be required on a dozen conditions, including a requirement that methodologies and rules for carbon sequestration be decided on an international level and that social and environmental impacts be taken into consideration on an ad-hoc basis.

Delegates said final approval on the issue would likely come at COP-17 in South Africa.

Oil, gas, and coal producing countries had lobbied for acceptance for carbon sequestration technologies in the CDM. Environmentalists, who fear it could siphon away resources from cleaner technologies, said they were resigned to the eventual inclusion of carbon sequestration in the CDM.

“I think it will eventually be included and be another loophole in the CDM,” Arnaud Collignon of Greenpeace International told BNA. “We have to hope the door isn’t opened too wide and that too many CCS projects are not allowed.”

New Working Group Chairs in 2011

The meeting was the last for AWG-KP chair John Ashe and AWG-LCA chair Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe, whose terms expire at the end of the year.

They will be replaced by Adrian Macey of New Zealand and Dan Reifsnyder of the United States, respectively.

As things stand, the schedule for 2011 includes just two meetings: the midyear subsidiary bodies meeting at UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn and the COP-17 talks, scheduled for Nov. 28-Dec. 9, 2011, in Durban, South Africa.

But U.N. officials said that one or two more meetings were likely to be added on the schedule, with the dates and locations to be determined early in 2011.

By Dean Scott and Eric J. Lyman  

Full text of the Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action, reached at the conclusion of the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Cancun, Mexico, Nov. 29-Dec. 10, is available at

Text of the Outcome of the work of the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol, reached in Cancun, is available at

More information on the outcome of the 16th Conference of the Parties talks in Cancun, including all of the Cancun Agreements, is available at

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