Cancun Climate Agreement Saves UN Process But Not The Climate

In the plenary hall at COP16 last night... video: Adopt a Negotiator

That title is a paraphrase of Greenpeace International's climate policy director Wendel Trio and it's pretty much right on the mark. Though climate talks in Cancun appeared at a deadlock for nearly all of the two week conference, at the end of late night negotiations a new deal on climate change was finally reached. Which is the part about saving the UN process. Here's the part about not saving the climate:Under the agreement, which is still not legally-binding, deep cuts in carbon emissions are called for to keep global temperature rise to 2°C--and calls for possibly strengthening this target to 1.5°C.

However the total amount of emission reductions currently pledged are insufficient to meet that goal, now roughly at 15% below 1990 levels by 2020 when 40% or more is what is needed. Current pledges still puts us on a trajectory for about 3-4°C temperature rise--somewhere between what Bill McKibben has described as an impossible and miserable future.

The one bright spot in this part of the agreement is that we've finally seem to gotten past the ideological impasse that China and India are no longer the same nations economically that they were when the Kyoto Protocol was originally drafted--both nations are now in the top tier of carbon emitting nations and ought to be held to emission reduction targets. How these targets will be administered--China has said it would consider making its targets binding under a separate agreement--is still an unknown, but at least the international community can put this tedious discussion behind it.

Perhaps the largest genuine step forward--the part about emission reductions more being akin to someone taking a stumbling step in the right direction after being spun around continuously for a long while--is the establishment of a Green Climate Fund.

Under the Fund, to be led by 24 representatives from developed and developing nations, equally divided between the two, money from wealthy nations will be distributed to poor nations to assist with climate change mitigation and adaptation. $30 billion in rapid assistance money has been pledged by the EU, US, and Japan--in addition to $100 billion a year starting in 2020. That latter date could well be too little too late, but it's a good step nevertheless.

In addition, the agreement supports greater efforts to reduce deforestation, while acknowledging that indigenous peoples' rights need to be protected while doing so.

As for the Kyoto Protocol, that's mostly being tabled for a later date.

Despite any environmental shortcomings in the Cancun agreement--and make no mistake there are plenty of them, with the real heavy lifting left to come--the importance that this all has in salvaging the UN climate negotiation progress should not be underestimated. In the aftermath of last year's talks in Copenhagen, and throughout this year's talks prior to COP16, it really appeared that the entire process was in jeopardy. Warts and all, the UN remains the only effective venue for taking the sort of globally collective political action needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Plenty of the usual sources have the breakdown and more reaction commentary (The Guardian, Reuters, Economic Times, Fred Pearce writing in New Scientist) but I'll leave you with this statement from Mexican president Felipe Calderon that Climate Progress is highlighting.

Sometimes I think in this respect we fail to understand that we're all passengers in the same vessel, in the same aircraft, or the same vehicle. Our aircraft has now seen the disappearance of the pilot. Something happened in the cabin. And all the passengers are responsible for the aircraft, and we're squabbling about these matters--whether the guilt lies with those in the tourist class or those sitting up front in first class--and the plane continues to go down...I think, friends, somebody has to take control of the aircraft.

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More on Global Climate Change:
Copenhagen Accord Commitments Mean 4.2°C Temperature Rise & No More Coral Reefs By 2100
Royal Society Paints Grim Picture of 4°C Temperature Rise
Gap Between National Emission Pledges & What's Needed is Wide - And Not Narrowing
There's No Longer a Happy Ending Where We Prevent Climate Change Anymore: Bill McKibben

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