Just after 3 am on the last day of the UN climate change conference, exhausted negotiators from 193 countries signed an agreement that was modest and reflected elements of desperation (the one country refusing to sign, Bolivia, decried what it called "a hollow and false victory" that would fail "to prevent runaway climate change"). After the failure last year in Copenhagen, the UN-led talks were falling apart, with some beginning to suggests that the issue be handled outside the UN, either by bottom-up approaches or in more elite groups like the G-20. The Cancún Agreements are significantly less ambitious than what many observers had hoped for, but at least they avoided collapse. The failure in Copenhagen and Cancún to agree on binding emissions-reduction targets marks a significant scaling back from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the first and only international agreement to set legally binding targets.
In lieu of binding targets, the Cancún Agreements address technical issues like transfers of green technology to developing countries and a reiteration of the domestic reduction plans initiated in previous talks. The documents postpone, until next year’s conference in Durban, South Africa, the contentious issue of whether to extend Kyoto, which expires in 2012. Instead they call for establishing a $100 billion fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change. But that fund will be managed by the World Bank, which has a dismal record on environmental protection. And it is still not clear where the money will come from.
"It is not what is ultimately required, but it is the essential foundation on which to build greater, collective ambition," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN process, formally known as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Between pleas for progress, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had to resort to a tired cliché to describe the mood: "We cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good." By producing an agreement, the Cancún delegates partially restored the credibility lost at Copenhagen.
A key question about Cancún was whether the world’s biggest emitters, the United States and China, would come any closer to a common understanding on who is responsible for the climate problem and what to do about it. The two countries together account for 30 percent of the world’s economic output and 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. The US and Chinese negotiators at Cancún were crafty and subtle. Both teams used cautious language that on the surface appeared to present similar positions. Both wanted a deal and both wanted to be seen as playing a constructive role—but each saw the other as an obstruction to progress.
When Dr. Yang Fuqiang, director of Global Climate Solutions for WWF International, arrived in Cancún, his hopes were dim that the United States and China would reach a meaningful agreement on reductions. With more than thirty years of experience working on energy and environmental issues in China, Yang has attended the three most recent of the UN’s sixteen rounds of climate negotiations. China, he said, would only accept an agreement that allowed exemptions for developing countries—the concept known as "common but differentiated responsibilities," which is the bedrock of the Kyoto Protocol. In this claim, China is aligned with Article 3.1 of the UNFCCC charter, which states, "The developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof."
Throughout the meetings, the US deputy special envoy for climate change, Jonathan Pershing, expressed plans to scrap Kyoto—not surprising, since the United States is the only developed country that has not signed it. Washington wanted to draft a new agreement that has "symmetry"—one that is legally binding for developed and developing countries. As Pershing explained in a briefing to NGOs, the Obama administration can’t sell a package in Congress that doesn’t include specific requirements for developing countries like China.