Countries Agree to Non-Binding Climate Deal in Cancun

December 13, 2010
By: Nick Engelfried 

On Friday negotiators representing 193 countries agreed on text for a non-binding international climate agreement during a climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico.  The agreement reached in Cancun isn’t legally binding, and many countries as well as international environmental groups are sure to continue pushing for a stronger treaty.  However most countries represented at the climate meetings seem to feel the Cancun agreement is a step in the right direction.

From November 29th through December 10th, representatives of nearly 200 countries met in Cancun for the most important international climate meeting of the year—a follow-up to last year’s climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Most major environmental groups strongly criticized the Copenhagen meeting for failing to make significant progress toward a deal that takes into account the needs of countries and communities most vulnerable to climate change.  However on Friday as the Cancun meetings concluded, some of these same groups expressed cautious optimism that negotiations are again headed in the direction of a strong climate treaty.

A statement from Greenpeace, one of the world’s largest international environmental organizations, says, “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.”

Major elements of the Cancun climate deal include agreements on how countries’ progress curbing carbon emissions will be made transparent, establishment of a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change while building low-carbon economies, and an initiative aimed at curbing carbon emission from deforestation in developing countries.  If successfully implemented, the forest agreement could be a major breakthrough that helps reduce loss of global biodiversity in addition to curbing carbon emissions.  Worldwide deforestation is responsible for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Still, much work remains if the international community is going to eventually agree on a binding treaty ambitious enough to avert the worst effects of climate change.  It is unclear how soon the voluntary goals for reducing carbon emissions contained in the Cancun agreement might be translated into a legally binding treaty.  The targets laid out for reducing emissions and minimizing the increase global temperatures also fall far short of what climate scientists say is necessary. 

The Cancun agreement calls for limiting any global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.  However a growing number of researchers warn more than a 1.5 degree temperature increase will be enough to trigger some of the worst impacts of climate change, including flooding of small island nations.  On Wednesday a coalition of small island countries called on world leaders to make 1.5 degrees Celsius the maximum acceptable global temperature increase.

Perhaps still more importantly, the pledges individual countries have made to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions are not enough to achieve even the two degree limit.  Added together, these pledges would reduce worldwide carbon emissions 16% below 1990 levels by the year 2020.  Scientists warn a 25-40% reduction is what is needed to stay below the two degree threshold, meaning countries must make much deeper emission cuts than those proposed so far.  US emission reduction goal is especially under-ambitious.  The United States has pledged to cut emission 17% below 2005 levels, which translates to only about 4% below its 1990 levels of emissions.

For these reasons, groups concerned about climate change in the US and elsewhere will continue pushing for stronger emission reduction targets at both national and international levels.  More ambitious commitments from the United States will be essential to eventually solidifying a climate treaty.  Still the ability of countries in Cancun to agree on some concrete steps has restored hope that an ambitious agreement can eventually be reached—at least if the United States becomes willing to take on a leadership role.

“The US needs to be a leader in providing climate solutions at home and abroad,” says Liz Butler of the US-based organization 1Sky.  “We call on President Obama to stand up and be the leader the world needs to solve the climate crisis, and to put all who will be impacted by the climate crisis above the politics of the moment.”

Photo credit: Mindaugas Danys

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