Cancun climate talks show signs of progress

In December of last year, after two weeks of negotiations, the annual UN climate change conference ended with the adoption of an important set of agreements. Gathering over 190 countries together, the event encompassed negotiating tracks on the UN climate convention and its Kyoto Protocol, as well as sessions of both subsidiary bodies and numerous side-events. Named after the Mexican city where the meeting was held, the ‘Cancun Agreements’ hold a good deal of promise for future efforts on climate change.

The agreements reaffirm and go beyond the accord reached at the previous UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, which ended largely in disappointment, and polarisation on a number of issues, last year. These agreements show progress on several major areas including emissions reductions, finance, forests, and transparency. Although some may have viewed the outcome as rather modest (in particular with regard to the depth of emissions targets set), the agreements reached in Cancun have established a series of goals, institutions and processes that will be instrumental in accelerating action on climate change. These negotiations were also characterized by a marked change in mood since Copenhagen, with countries apparently showing greater willingness to collaborate with one another. Indeed, this new spirit fo cooperation and the tangible progress made in Cancun have helped to revitalize the UN negotiating process.

However, due to the pace of negotiations so far, and the set-backs of Copenhagen, the Cancun meeting began from a low baseline. Thus, although progress has been made, the level of ambition in addressing climate change needs to be raised significantly. In addition, there is a considerable amount of work still left to be done in order to flesh out the framework adopted in Cancun. The agreements establish a platform for action; the detailed working procedures still need to be developed.

Technology, adaptation and finance also feature in the Cancun Agreements with a new set of frameworks and institutions to push for progress in these areas. Of particular importance—both in terms of climate action and relationships between countries—was the reaffirmation of a commitment by developed countries to specific amounts of financial assistance and to timelines for its provision. Cancun also established a ‘Green Climate Fund’ governed by a board composed of an equal number of members from developing and developed country parties.

The agreements contain a significant development for the treaty’s verification procedures. Though arguments over transparency and accountability have soured relationships in the past, a broad monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) framework has now been established, building on existing structures.

The framework enhances MRV reporting requirements of both developed and developing countries, but still distinguishes between them on the basis of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’. Developed countries are to improve MRV of emissions, implementation of mitigation measures and financial support—with reviews to be conducted by technical experts. Measures to improve MRV by developing countries were also agreed.

But it was progress on forests and climate change that many consider to be among the most positive of all the results from Cancun. Some major issues remain outstanding—finance and functional defintions of key terms among them—but the decision includes an agreement on an overall goal to reduce emissions, to address the drivers of deforestation and to establish forest monitoring systems.

Critically, the decision on forests includes requirements for upholding social and environmental safeguards and systems for generating information on progress on these issues. Strengthening forest governance and systems designed to assist in policy development and implementation have been a key component of VERTIC’s work on climate change for a number of years. The progress made in Cancun is welcome, but it will be important to ensure that good intentions are put into practice in the years ahead.

Sonia Drobysz, Paris