What Happened in Cancun? 10 Summaries

I know, Cancun was another roller coaster ride in international climate change negotiation and policy and you’ve probably had a tough time getting a clear picture of what went on there and what the final results are.

I’ve been delaying writing a summary piece on the important climate conference for that reason. In the meantime, I’ve been collecting a number of summaries from sources a respect for various reasons. Rather than do my own solo summary of the conference, though, I’ve decided to provide you with a summary of the summaries (if that makes sense).

Basically, below are 10 good summaries of Cancun and its outcomes, with key info on what they summarized, general conclusions, and salient quotes.

Quite Happy with the Results

Center for American Progress Coordinator of International Climate Policy, Andrew Light: The Cancun Compromise (Dec 11)

“The UN Climate Summit in Cancun ends with a bang big enough to advance a progressive global climate agenda another year and possibly a bit longer….

“The consensus reached at 3:00am this morning to forge the “Cancun Agreements” is a critical step forward in forging an effective global compact to fight global warming.  These agreements will certainly not solve the problem, and some of the hardest issues in forging a climate treaty are still waiting to be addressed.  But in a relatively short time, especially for this process, the parties came together on a balanced package of decisions on adaptation, forestry, technology transfer, the structure of climate finance and other issues which will be the basis for progress moving forward….

“While the Cancun Agreements are not the full second step they are a solid half step forward, a kind of Copenhagen 1.5.”

The Wonk Room, Brad Johnson: The Cancun Compacts: Nations Of World Choose Hope In Face Of Climate Crisis (Dec 11)

“‘Confidence is back,’ announced Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon at the conclusion of climate talks in Cancun at 3 am. ‘Hope has returned.’…

“Late Friday night, the representatives of these varied nations chose hope. With a roar of applause overwhelming one dissenting voice, they strongly endorsed a comprehensive document crafted under the leadership of the conference’s president Patricia Espinosa and the executive secretary Christiana Figueres. Countries from every corner of the world noted the mortal threat from destroying our atmosphere through fossil-fuel pollution and supported this international agreement….

“The first lesson of the Cancun talks is that the governments of the world can in fact work together on global warming, even though decoupling civilization from greenhouse pollution is a herculean task. However, the second lesson is that their leadership only gets humanity so far. Only the full mobilization of the present generation can overcome the institutional barriers to change and protect our fragile civilization from the raging climate system our pollution has created. The Cancun compact has restored hope around the world, but now the actual work has to begin.”

Director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, Robert Stavins: What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements (Dec 13)

“The international climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, have concluded, and despite the gloom-and-doom predictions that dominated the weeks and months leading up to Cancun, the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-16) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) must be judged a success.  It represents a set of modest steps forward.  Nothing more should be expected from this process.

“As I said in my November 19th essay – Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun – the key challenge was to continue the process of constructing a sound foundation for meaningful, long-term global action (not necessarily some notion of immediate, highly-visible triumph).  This was accomplished in Cancun.

“The Cancun Agreements – as the two key documents (“Outcome of the AWG-LCA” and “Outcome of the AWG-KP”) are called – do just what was needed, namely build on the structure of theCopenhagen Accord with a balanced package that takes meaningful steps toward implementing the key elements of the Accord.  The delegates in Cancun succeeded in writing and adopting an agreement that assembles pledges of greenhouse gas (GHG) cuts by all of the world’s major economies, launches a fund to help the most vulnerable countries, and avoids some political landmines that could have blown up the talks, namely decisions on the (highly uncertain) future of the Kyoto Protocol.”

U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern (via Environment News Service): Cancun Climate Outcome ‘Consistent With U.S. Objectives’ (Dec 14)

“The United States government is pleased with the outcome of the United Nations climate talks in Cancun, which ended Saturday, top U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern said today. ‘From our point of view, what just happened is really very significant. It kind of lays out the structure of an international agreement in all of the crucial areas.'”

Greenpeace: Cancun agreement builds towards a global climate deal (Dec 11)

“Governments in Cancun, Mexico, have chosen hope over fear and put the building blocks back in place for a global deal to combat climate change. For the first time in years, governments put aside some major differences and compromised to reach a climate agreement.”

Greenpeace went on to discuss the failures and limitations of this year’s conference as well and I almost decided to put it in the next section. FYI

Mixed Feelings

Friends of the Earth: Cancun talks: Friends of the Earth analysis (Dec 11)

“Although the agreement in Cancun keeps the negotiating process alive, rich countries have pulled the world away from international agreements where the emissions targets are based on science.

“They have moved towards replacing this with a hazardous system where targets can be decided on the whim of politicians. This puts the world in an extremely dangerous place if we want to have any chance of avoiding temperature rises above two degrees….

“Friends of the Earth is pleased that a Global Climate Fund has been established to  provide developing countries with the money they need to tackle climate change.

“But we’re very concerned that the pledges of finance are very far off what’s needed. We don’t think that that the World Bank, as one of the largest lenders for fossil fuel projects in the world, should have been given a role as trustee of the Fund.”

Environmental Defense Fund, Jennifer Andreassen: Modest advances made at Cancún climate talks, forests and finance among winners (Dec 11)

“After talks in Cancún predictably went hours over their scheduled Friday-evening end, the United Nations climate conference approved, early this morning, a modest package of climate initiatives that includes preserving forests and creating an international green fund….

“However, not all issues were decided in the Cancún talks.  To reach agreements, the conference postponed some of the toughest decisions, but pledged to make progress on them before next year’s meeting in Durban, South Africa.”

Business Green, James Murray: Ministers hail “historic” Cancun Agreement (Dec 11)

“Officials and many green groups broadly welcomed the compromise agreement, arguing that it represents “an important step” towards a formal treaty being finalised in South Africa next year. However, all parties acknowledged that they are still a long way from a final agreement with both texts effectively delaying decisions on the most contentious issues, such as the future of the Kyoto Protocol and the need to close the so-called “gigatone gap” by agreeing more ambitious emissions targets for 2020 that are in line with scientists recommendations.”

This was more of a matter-of-fact, traditional journalistic summary of the results and reactions to it.

TIME, Bryan Walsh: At Cancún, a New Pragmatism in Climate Policy (Dec 13)

Like the Business Green article above, this one is a bit more journalistic in its style. Rather than focus on Walsh’s summary (aptly covered above), however, I’m going to pull out five key observations he made. For more on any of these, follow the link above.

1. “Multilateralism Isn’t Quite Dead Yet”

2. “China Can Negotiate”

3. “The Shock of Copenhagen Prompted Compromise in Cancún”

4. “Forests Are the Low-Hanging Fruit of Climate Policy”

5. “Don’t Get Carried Away” (i.e. the results aren’t as great as many may be claiming)

Summary of Cancun Agreements

In addition to general summary of the results, here is a summary of the actual agreements, via ecopolitology/Guardian News:

Cutting carbon emissions

Scores of rich countries made pledges over the past year to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 under the Copenhagen accord but they were not incorporated in the official UN process. Cancún now formally puts those pledges into UN documentation, although they may increase or decrease in future. For the first time, developing countries also agreed to look at how they can cut emissions in the future – but did not make specific pledges.

Crucially however, none of the cuts are legally binding, and analysis suggests the pledges would lead to a 3.2C rise in temperatures – far higher than the 2C generally considered to be a level of “safe” warming.

Climate aid

A new climate green fund was agreed at Cancún to transfer money from the developed to developing world to tackle the impacts of climate change. Poorer countries saw this as a success because they will outnumber rich countries on an supervisory panel for the fund, which is due to be set up in 2011. But no figure was put on how much money will go into it.

Separately, ministers repeated their political promise made last year at Copenhagen to raise $100bn (£63bn) in climate aid by 2020, starting with $30bn (£19bn) by 2012 for “fast track” financing. This headline-grabbing promise, however, is not part of the UN process and is merely an aspiration of rich countries.


Formal backing was given for the UN’s deforestation scheme, Redd (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation), under which rich countries pay poorer nations not to chop down forests and so lock away carbon emissions. But details on when and exactly what form the scheme will take – particularly whether developed countries will be able to use it to “offset” their emissions rather than make cuts at home – are still vague.

Kyoto protocol

Decisions on the future of the Kyoto protocol, the current international treaty binding rich countries to cut emissions, were effectively deferred until South Africa next year. Whether countries will sign up for a second “commitment period” to cuts beyond 2012 remains to be seen.

In addition, decisions on the role that the protocol will play in an ultimate future legal document that binds the world’s countries to emissions cuts – the “holy grail” of the UN negotiations – were delayed.

Technology transfer

The idea of transferring knowledge of clean technology between countries was backed at Cancún. A technology executive committee and a climate technology centre and network are to be set up, but there are no details on the money, where they will be based, when or by whom.


Countries agreed to the principle of having their emissions cuts inspected. Such “monitoring, reporting and verification” will depend on the size of the country’s economy, though who will carry out the inspections – the country itself, the UN or another body – was not specified.

Any more great summaries or extra points to throw in there? Comment.

Photo Credit: Greenpeace

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