Cancun – Was it a Success?

By Shauna Sylvester

Last December I attended the Copenhagen COP 15 Conference on Climate Change and blogged daily about it. Like many Canadians, I decided not to attend the Cancun COP 16 Conference because my expectations were extremely low about what could be achieved there.  But after tracking daily blogs and reading some of the reports following the conference, I’m regretting my decision to stay home. It appears that Mexico was more successful than Copenhagen in delivering results.

I’m using the term ‘results’ here in relative terms.  International negotiations move at glacial speed, and most climate scientists would agree that the agreements made in Cancun will not take us nearly far enough or fast enough to address the volatile impacts of climate change, nevertheless it’s important to take a moment to recognize the progress that was made.

Here is my quick assessment of COP 15’s  modest ‘achievements’ albeit from my perch in Vancouver.

1.      The Mexican delegation was successful in keeping the negotiations moving.  They demonstrated their capacities as a global convenor, in ways that might put others to shame.

2.      Civil Society organizations were active, organized and vocal.  Young people and indigenous people were particularly successful in building global networks and communicating their concerns.

3.      The parties agreed to keep temperatures to a global average of under 2 degrees C (450ppm), bringing this target within the official UN process. Although this was a strongly held negotiating position by the European Union in Copenhagen, they had to wait unit Cancun to see it adopted.  Some environmentalists and island states have contended for years that the target is too high and have pushed for a lower threshold (1.5 degrees or 360ppm).

4.      80 countries agreed to mitigation targets and action by 2020, including the largest emitters like the US, the European Union, China, Brazil  and India.  Of course the devil is in the details, but getting agreement by both Annex I and Annex II countries to targets is an important indicator of their recognition of the problem.

5.      The parties agreed to greater transparency in measuring and reporting their emissions.

6.      The parties reinforced their pledges to a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries with mitigation and adaptation strategies. Despite the objections of developing countries, The World Bank was named as the trustee for this fund which is expected to grow to $100 billion annually.

7.      A new REDD plus (Reducing Emissions through Deforestation and Degradation) agreement, which recognizes the importance of protecting tropical forests as carbon sinks, was adopted.  Indigenous Peoples worked hard to ensure that their rights and livelihood as forests dwellers would not be undermined by the REDD plus agreement.  Bolivia stood strongly against the agreement arguing that it was a triumph of capitalism over communities, but despite Bolivia’s rejection, the agreement went through.

8.      Annex I countries committed to providing greater capacity building and technology transfer to developing countries and there was a reaffirmation of the Clean Development Mechanism which enables developed countries to purchase emission offset credits from carbon reduction projects conducted in the developing world.

For those who study international negotiations, the results of Cancun are important.  They reflect progress from Copenhagen in both attitude and commitment.  Cancun was not hamstrung by competing blocs of countries unwilling to move, acrimonious relations between the US and China or countries hammering at the Kyoto Protocol (perhaps Canada might be the exception here).  Instead, it was characterized by adept facilitation and chairing, a willingness by China and the US to make progress and a recognition that the needs of developing countries for support in mitigation and adaptation were essential.  As South Africa becomes the site for COP17 let’s  hope the parties develop a greater sense of urgency and come to the table prepared to take bigger steps to address climate change.

For the most comprehensive and best overview of COP 16 I’ve read so far, see Robert Stavins of the Harvard Climate Project’s article at


About Carbon Talks

Shauna Sylvester is the Executive Director of Carbon Talks and a Fellow at the SFU Centre for Dialogue. View all posts by Carbon Talks

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