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Final Hours in Cancun: Climate Talks Make a Comeback

Applause, standing ovations, and the final moments of the Cancun climate conference.

In the early morning of Saturday, December 11, I heard thundering applause coming from the television monitor near where I was working. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was someone watching a football game? Had Bono suddenly arrived in Cancun?

No, it was the opening plenary on the final night of the climate talks in Cancun, Mexico. This is not the sound one usually expects from a United Nations’ conference, much less a climate change meeting. But it was the result of the two long weeks of international negotiations that produced the Cancun Agreement. (Note: you can read my previous two posts on the climate talks, here and here). Some key developments took place in the final days, indeed in the final hours, clearing the way for a decision:

  • Negotiators were able to agree that all major economies would set targets or adopt actions to reduce carbon emissions. This is the formalization of the pledges put forward in the lead-up to Copenhagen.

  • They were able to move forward on a plan to reduce emissions for forests and other degraded land, known as REDD+, which is significant since forest loss accounts for 12 – 17% of global carbon emissions.

  • The negotiators agreed to establish a “Green Fund” that will, hopefully, direct billions of dollars in financial support to developing countries (although the sources for that fund remains unresolved); and

  • They were able to unblock the Kyoto Protocol impasse – finding an agreement that would at least for the moment satisfy all countries, including Japan, which had vigorously objected to extending the second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol.

There were many differences between Copenhagen and Cancun – both the expectations going in and the results coming out. Clearly, the Mexican leadership that oversaw the Cancun meetings was determined to ensure that the process was more inclusive and transparent. As a result, they were able to guide parties to a decision, while avoiding a lot of the dissatisfaction from Copenhagen.

<p>UNFCCC Final Plenary, COP-16, Cancun, Mexico, December 11, 2010. Photo credit: Michael Oko.</p>

UNFCCC Final Plenary, COP-16, Cancun, Mexico, December 11, 2010. Photo credit: Michael Oko.

All of this led to the dramatic outcome of the meetings, where negotiators celebrated and even the media got caught up in the newfound positive spirit. (Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine tweeted: “Speeches, big ovations from the international audience—this is the U.N. the way they taught you in high school;” and Coral Davenport of National Journal tweeted: “The ovations and lovefest continue in plenary @ #cop16. Climate negotiation veterans say they've never seen anything like it.”)

Finally, somewhere close to 4:00 a.m., the Cancun Agreement was adopted by representatives from more than 190 countries. The Mexican Foreign Secretary declared that "A new era in international cooperation in climate change has begun.” Another round of applause erupted. Another standing ovation.

On the bus ride back to my hotel that morning, I felt drained and bleary-eyed. I talked— or mostly listened— to a colleague, who was dissatisfied by the outcome. A veteran of some 13 COP meetings, he was frustrated that we didn’t get more, that the process is messy, and that so many pieces remain unanswered.

Certainly the Cancun talks did not achieve all that is needed – including more ambitious goals on emission reductions and a path to resolve the legal form of the agreement. But the Cancun Agreement is enough to know that progress was made here. Most importantly, the Cancun Agreement reaffirms that the international community understands the urgent challenge of climate change and, hopefully, they’re now ready to take more action to address it.

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