Cancun Conference Results In Critical Steps Forward

Developed and developing countries make key agreements

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(Editor’s Note: Earthjustice attorneys Martin Wagner and Erika Rosenthal are back from participating at the United Nations climate conference in Cancun, Mexico. This is their assessment of what happened.)

In the early morning hours of December 11, the nations of the world concluded the U.N. climate change conference by adopting a set of decisions that lays the foundation for the world to tackle climate change in the future, while taking modest but critical steps forward on key issues.

Although there is still "a long road ahead to travel" to slow global warming, in the words of the Chilean delegate, the Cancún agreements took important immediate steps in the right direction.

The agreement sets up a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries cope with the devastating impacts of climate change. It establishes a mechanism to speed the transfer of clean energy technologies, which are essential if developing countries are to meet their basic needs without further endangering the planet. Because deforestation is responsible for roughly one-fifth of global warming, the agreement creates a framework to compensate developing countries for the preservation of tropical forests.

And developed and developing nations alike agreed to significantly increase the information they share on actions they take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—transparency that is essential to the environmental and political success of any climate agreement.

The text embraces a goal of keeping average global warming below 2°C and, importantly, agrees to consider a 1.5° goal in the future (The 1.5° goal has been the rallying cry of the island states, African nations and others who point to science indicating that two degrees of warming will subject them to inundation by rising seas, drought-induced famine and other devastating impacts of catastrophic climate change.).

The agreement also recognizes that to have a shot at avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, rich countries will have to reduce emissions 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 (For comparison, the United States has pledged to reduce roughly 4 percent below 1990 levels.). And the text contains important language on the need to ensure that human rights are respected and measures taken so that national actions don’t harm indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups.

Nevertheless, the Cancun agreement still leaves us woefully short of what science says is urgently needed, doing little more than kicking the can down the road on the hard decisions.

For example, the emissions reductions countries have pledged so far only add up to 30 to 60 percent of the overall reductions necessary to have a fair shot at avoiding irreversible, dangerous global warming, and that is based on the increasingly questionable 2 degree warming scenario.

The Cancun agreement recognizes this so-called "gigatonne gap" (referring to the additional amount of greenhouse gas emissions that must be reduced), but puts off any action on addressing it to next year and beyond. The decision on continuing the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that requires the richest nations with the greatest historical responsibility for global warming to reduce their emissions, was similarly put off for a year.

And while the establishment of the climate fund is crucial, there’s still no agreement on where the $100 billion in climate assistance that wealthy countries pledged will come from.

At the end of the day, though, the Cancun agreement moved the world forward, helping to restore confidence in the ability and desire of the community of nations to take collective action on global warming, perhaps the greatest challenge of our time.

The United Nations climate system is the only forum where low-income and vulnerable countries that have done little or nothing to contribute to climate change, but are the first to suffer its impacts, have a voice.

On the final night of negotiations, country after country took the floor to acknowledge that the agreements weren’t perfect, and "left a long road to travel to ensure the survival of our children and grandchildren" in the words of the Chilean delegate, but that they represented important steps to ensuring a livable planet for future generations.

As the Zambian delegate put it, the agreements "lifted our spirits and renewed our confidence."

Earthjustice and allied organizations will be redoubling our efforts to ensure that the US delivers on its pledged emissions reductions through our landmark environmental law, the Clean Air Act, and other federal laws, through strong state and regional climate and energy policies, and through all other means possible.


Part of the International program, Erika's work focuses on climate change, at international negotiations and with U.N. Environment Programme and regional bodies like the Arctic Council to reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants.

The International Program partners with organizations and communities around the world to establish, strengthen, and enforce national and international legal protections for the environment and public health.