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Comment: Cancún – a modest success?

Steve Sawyer

With the backdrop of the COP15 failure in Copenhagen, expectations going into the recent UNFCCC COP16 talks in Cancún, Mexico, were extremely low, with few believing there would be a significant outcome. And after the chaotic failure in Copenhagen the year before, many observers had already pronounced the multilateral approach to combating climate change ‘dead’, and did not think it could be revived.

With this in mind, the outcome of the negotiations, while far from ideal, must be judged against this background.

The very fact that there was an agreement in Cancún, however weak, was a necessary step to re-establish the legitimacy and efficacy of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process.

While the agreements do not actually take us a great deal further down the road towards saving the climate, they do constitute a renewed commitment by the international community to the multilateral UN process. The Mexican presidency must be commended for succeeding in creating an atmosphere of improved trust and cooperation which had been all but destroyed in the shambles of Copenhagen.

“As long as the US does not agree to legally binding emission reduction obligations, how can the rest of the world proceed…?”
- Steve Sawyer, GWEC

It is true that the Cancún agreements have not been universally applauded, and many observers and parties alike have expressed concerns over the substance of the outcome. They are right, of course. We are still a far cry from a global price on carbon, and the emissions reduction targets that were agreed are not sufficient to meet the objective of keeping global mean temperature rise below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.

There is also still no agreement on the future legal architecture of a new climate deal – will it be a completely new single treaty, or an amendment of the Kyoto Protocol alongside a new agreement for developing countries and the USA? It is clear that Governments will have to do much better to move the climate regime forward in a meaningful way.

The Cancún agreement

One of the main problems with the Copenhagen Accord was that it had been in legal limbo for 12 months, as it had never been formally adopted by the 193 parties to the UNFCCC. The Cancún Agreements finally resolved this uncertainty by adopting the majority of the positive elements of the Copenhagen Accord.

The emissions reduction pledges tabled by both industrialized and developing countries have now been formally registered within the UNFCCC, and the very important 2°C objective has now been made an official target supported by all parties.

In addition, the agreements on both fast-start finance (US$30 billion by 2012) and long-term finance in the Green Climate Fund (US$100bn per year by 2020) are now formally agreed.

Kyoto dead in the water?

Virtually all of the world's countries, except for the US, have now ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and most of them would like to see at least some elements of the Protocol continue past the end of the first commitment period at the end of 2012.

Most importantly for the renewable energy sector, this includes the flexible mechanisms based on carbon trading, such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and Joint Implementation (JI). Logically, however, this cannot be achieved without legally binding emissions reduction commitments for the period after 2012, and this of course is the key problem.

As long as the US does not agree to legally binding emission reduction obligations, how can the rest of the world proceed without the world's largest economy? This is the fundamental question that has remained unresolved since the Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005.

Will COP17 deliver the breakthrough?

It is unclear how much progress can and will be made in the course of this year. Without an agreed negotiating mandate with a time frame, it is difficult to justify high expectations for COP17 in November in Durban, South Africa, or even for future COPs after that.

However, what we do know is that continued failure to deliver on the key outstanding issues will significantly undermine investment in clean energy technologies and other concrete action on mitigation. A meaningful climate agreement must move us towards a global price on carbon, to enable the private sector to play its key role in financing the energy revolution.

In the absence of such an agreement, the renewable energy sector will just have to wait for the politics to change, especially in the US, and/or for the impacts of climate change to worsen considerably to instil a genuine sense of urgency into the process. In the meantime, we continue to focus our efforts on developing national markets, and on benefiting from the vast array of existing national, regional, state, municipal and local initiatives to combat climate change.

While this is not the most effective way to address the climate crisis and grow the renewables industry, it is the most effective avenue available to us for the time being.


Steve Sawyer is the Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC).

Renewable Energy Focus, Volume 12, Issue 1, January-February 2011, Pages 24-25

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