The Breakthrough That Wasn't

At a climate change conference in Cancun, negotiators agreed to meet again. That's pretty much all they agreed on.


Although the United Nations climate change conference in Cancun was hailed as a breakthrough in the environmental community and the press, it did not do much to address manmade global warming.

Before the conference convened at the end of 2010, developing countries and environmental activists argued that it could be considered a success if participants achieved agreement on three issues. First, developed countries would commit to continuing the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty aimed at stemming global warming, after 2012. Second, developed countries would agree to a legally binding process compelling them to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions by something like 40 percent in the next decade. Third, a global climate change fund would be established under the auspices of the United Nations to distribute $100 billion in climate change aid to poor countries each year. Despite the positive spin coming out of Cancun, real agreements were achieved on none of these goals.

Let's start with the future of the Kyoto Protocol. Under the treaty, rich countries agreed in 1997 to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, by an average of 5 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. The United States never ratified the agreement. At the Cancun conference, poor countries demanded that the rich countries acknowledge their "historic responsibility" for loading up the atmosphere with greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution. In light of this history, representatives from poor countries such as China and Bolivia argued, rich countries such as the United States and Japan must commit to deep cuts in their emissions before poor countries can be expected even to consider any sort of binding commitments regarding their own emissions. 

Since the Kyoto Protocol is the only game in town when to it comes to legally binding commitments, developing countries insisted that rich countries must agree to continue and increase their reduction commitments past its 2012 expiration date. "If the Kyoto Protocol falls," warned Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, "that would feed the efforts of those back in the United States who want to block President Obama from taking further steps to meet his pledge that the U.S. will cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 17 percent by 2020." Poor countries actually wanted the rich countries to commit to cuts of 25 percent to 40 percent below their 1990 emission levels.

They didn't get that commitment. The negotiators merely agreed that the group of 194 countries represented at the conference "shall aim to complete…work" on extending the Kyoto Protocol with the goal of having the "results adopted by the Conference of the Parties…as early as possible and in time to ensure that there is no gap between the first and second commitment periods." The operative phrase is "shall aim." The rich countries did not agree to continue the Kyoto Protocol; they agreed to continue talking about continuing the Kyoto Protocol. Furthermore, both Russia and Japan flatly stated they were dropping out of the Kyoto Protocol after 2012. Greens can try to put a happy face on that, but Nnimmo Bassey, chairman of the Friends of the Earth International, has a more accurate assessment of the treaty's condition: "It is now on life support." 

What about getting legally binding emission-reduction commitments from the rich countries? As the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference came to its chaotic end, the U.S., China, India, South Africa, and Brazil hastily put together the face-saving Copenhagen Accord. Under this agreement, both rich and poor countries could make voluntary pledges to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and engage in other activities with the aim of mitigating future man-made climate change. The accord had no official status under the United Nations climate negotiation process. The Cancun Agreements take note of the emission reduction targets promised under the Copenhagen Accord, but the pledges remain voluntary.

The spin coming out of Cancun is that these pledges now have official status under the U.N. negotiation process, so they can form the basis for future legally binding commitments. But neither developed nor developing countries are legally bound to do anything about their emissions under the Cancun Agreements.

As for getting industrialized countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 40 percent by 2020, the agreements note that the conference "recognizes that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required according to science." As a consequence, the agreements suggest that "parties should take urgent action to meet" the long-term goal of "reducing global greenhouse gas emissions so as to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels." This amounts to merely a suggestion that action be taken; there is nothing legally binding here either.

At the conference, it was obvious that the developing countries were mostly eager to use concerns about climate change as a way to shake down rich countries for billions of dollars in climate reparations. In Cancun the conference of parties officially decided to "establish a Green Climate Fund." But this decision does not amount to much, at least initially. Under the Cancun Agreements, the Green Climate Fund will be designed by a Transitional Committee, which will submit its proposals for approval at the next climate change meeting. 

The agreements also "recognize" that the rich countries "commit… to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries." There are two weasel words here: goal and mobilizing. Committing to a goal is not the same as reaching it. "The fundamental issue is what resources will support these new mechanisms," warned Pablo Solon, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations. Solon bitterly but accurately summarized the situation: "To 'mobilize' does not mean to 'provide' financial resources; the resources are not guaranteed." Cognizant of the vagueness of the term mobilizing, Bolivia and other developing countries wanted their money up front and therefore kept pushing for climate aid to be publicly financed and provided as grants on a government-to-government basis. They fear that accounting tricks will be substituted for hard cash. And 10 years is a very long time when it comes to keeping diplomatic promises.

At the close of the conference, Christiana Figueres, the U.N.'s top climate official, declared: "Cancun has done its job. The beacon of hope has been reignited, and faith in the multilateral climate change process to deliver results has been restored." Figueres is clearly exaggerating what was accomplished in Mexico, but the Cancun Agreements did achieve one breakthrough: They resuscitated the multilateral climate change process just enough to enable U.N. bureaucrats, representatives from nongovernmental activist groups, and environmental officials from 194 countries to justify gathering again, for the 17th time, next year in Durban, South Africa.