Cancun Climate Negotiation

For the last two weeks international climate negotiators met in Cancun, Mexico for the 16th Conference of Parties (COP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). After last year’s near-catastrophe in Copenhagen (see our assessment of the Copenhagen talks), countries spent the better part of the past year tamping down expectations for this year’s round of negotiations. Instead of shooting for the completion of a legally binding agreement, the negotiators focused on making incremental progress on some of the foundational elements of a new regime while sidestepping the issue of whether to extend the Kyoto Protocol and avoiding a more serious discussion about the diminishing likelihood that the international community will be able to reach its collective climate goals.

What agreements were reached in Cancun?

The climate talks in Cancun successfully “anchored” agreements reached last year in the formal negotiating progress and filled out some of the details in each major area. Last year, the negotiators reached an eleventh-hour political agreement referred to as the Copenhagen Accord. For many developed economies, chief among them the United States, this agreement is meant to serve as the foundation for a new global agreement because it solves some of the deficiencies of the Kyoto Protocol (namely, it includes emissions reduction pledges and transparency provisions for all major economies, not just the traditional developed countries). The agreement is broadly supported among the parties but was never formally adopted by the entire group. Todd Stern, the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, described the outcome of the Cancun negotiations as “approving and elaborating” on the Copenhagen Accord. This characterization can be derived from the fact that all the key elements of the Copenhagen Accord (i.e., emissions reductions, transparency, financing, technology sharing, forestry and land use, and adaptation) were included in the Cancun agreement. Moreover, while the Copenhagen Accord focused on high-level principles and agreements on each of those issues, the agreement in Cancun begins to set down some substantive detail about how each will be carried out (see the chart below for a partial summary of how the Cancun agreement built upon the major pillars of the Copenhagen Accord). 

Does this agreement signify progress or more of the same?

For those paying close attention to the climate negotiation process, the progress made in Cancun is tangible and significant. It solidifies the core achievement from the Copenhagen Accord: all major developed and developing economies are willing to take action and be held to some level of accountability for emissions reductions. This is a significant departure from the world of the Kyoto Protocol and engenders some level of momentum for near-term action on emissions reduction activity. 

In other ways, the outcome revealed that the negotiations have become a process that is waiting for the stars to realign before attempting to make any big breakthroughs or address some of the core underlying problems. The decision not to take on major issues seems to be strategic and pragmatic. The negotiators purposely did not take on thorny issues about increasing emissions reduction pledges (which are widely viewed as inadequate for reaching the agreed-upon target of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius) or ensuring greater levels of financing for developing country mitigation and adaptation efforts. From a practical standpoint, negotiators recognized that none of the parties were in a position to strengthen emissions or financial pledges due to domestic political and financial constraints, so instead, negotiators focused on things they could accomplish in order to facilitate as much real action on the suite of measures as possible. 

Where do the negotiations go from here?

The next round of formal negotiations (there will be preparatory negotiations throughout the course of 2011) will take place in Durban, South Africa, at the end of next year. Many analysts have rightly noted that it be will difficult for the negotiators to make the same type of “incremental progress” next year and avoid some of the underlying disagreements and core weaknesses of the current regime. One example of this is the question of whether to extend the Kyoto Protocol for another commitment period. During the negotiations in Cancun, Japan and several other countries with commitments under the Kyoto Protocol stated that they would not sign on to a second commitment period. All of this is, in some way, political theater. The idea that major developed economies would continue to be part of a legally binding agreement that does not somehow bring in the other major emitters has been a nonstarter for developed country signatories of the Kyoto Protocol for quite some time. However, the Kyoto Protocol is a critically important document for developing countries as it enshrines many of the core principles and structures that they view as the necessary foundation for any and all future action. The agreement reached in Cancun simply puts off a decision about whether to extend the Kyoto Protocol until next year (though it is hard to see how parties will be any closer to an agreement 12 months hence). The underlying strategy here is to build up a “replacement” for the Kyoto Protocol—an agreement that includes all the core principles that the developing world wants to see (e.g., common but differentiated standards, financing for mitigation and adaptation measures, etc.) but breaks down some of the barriers between developed and developing country action that the developed world simply cannot accept. Over time, if parties became more confident in a new agreement, the Kyoto Protocol will seem less important and hopefully fade away (because nobody ever kills these types of agreements). It is doubtful, however, that this type of confidence will be achieved before the deadline for extension comes up.

Perhaps more importantly, the international community seemed reluctant to accept that given current trajectories, the prospect of reaching their stated emissions reduction goals is increasingly unlikely. Most negotiators openly recognize that the world is not on course to effectively limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. This will become increasingly evident as more time passes, especially if major emitters like the United States are not able to make tangible and meaningful progress on emissions reductions. At some point individual countries as well as the global community will have to accept this new reality and come to grips with what it means for our collective action approach.

Progression from Copenhagen Accord to Cancun Outcome

(not intended to be comprehensive)

Pillars of a “Balanced Package”

Copenhagen Accord

Cancun Outcome

Emissions reduction pledges

Developed country targets and developing country actions (invited countries to submit targets and actions)

Includes developed country targets and developing country actions as part of the decision (so-called anchoring of pledges)


Developed country monitoring, reporting, and verification.

Developing country national communication with domestic monitoring review and verification subject to international consultation

Adds detail to the content, frequency, and review of emissions reduction and financial pledges for developed, major developing, and lesser-developed economies

Establishes details of the international consultation and analysis process for major developing countries


$30 billion of “new and additional” resources from developed countries between 2010–2012

Goal to mobilize $100 billion a year in public and private finance by 2020

High-Level Panel on finance goal

Sought  to establish Green Climate Fund

Locks in the amounts listed in the Copenhagen Accord for fast-start and long-term financing

Establishes a Green Climate Fund as the operational entity for climate finance

Establishes the World Bank as the interim trustee for the fund

Establishes a Transitional Committee and Standing Committee within the COP with the goal of improving the facilitation of the fund


Sought to establish a new Technology Mechanism (expressed desire but could not execute outside the realm of the COP)

Establishes a Technology Mechanism to facilitate the technology development and transfer. Will include a Technology Executive Committee and Climate Technology Center (agreement describes the functions of both)

Reducing Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)

Agreed on the crucial role of REDD and the need to provide positive incentives to such action and enable mobilization of resources from developed countries

Establish a process for developing countries to reduce emissions in the forest sector in such a way that could enable external financing for these efforts


Agreed that developed countries shall provide adequate, predictable, and sustainable financial resources, technology, and capacity building to support adaptation in developing countries

[Within financing section] Prioritized adaptation for the most vulnerable developing countries and stated that and that a balanced allocation of funding should go to mitigation and adaptation

Establishes Cancun Adaptation Framework to enhance adaptation action

Establishes an Adaptation Committee to promote implementation of enhanced action

Establishes a work program to study and address loss and damages associated with climate change

Sarah O. Ladislaw is a senior fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Sarah Ladislaw

Sarah Ladislaw

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Energy Security and Climate Change Program