Boiling Down “29 Pages of Dense Text” in The Cancun Climate Agreements

Written by Andrew Deutz on . Posted in Learn, The Wonk Room

This is the first of a two-part series reflecting on what the UN climate conference last month in Cancun means going forward into the new year of climate action.

The principal document agreed to in Cancun is 29 pages of dense text. What it all amounts to, in a nutshell, is:

The United Nations process succeeded in reaching a series of modest “Cancun Agreements.” Measured against the relatively low expectations we all had going in, Cancun can fairly be judged as a successful, if limited, Conference of the Parties (COP). That alone is significant, and coupled with the successful conclusion of the Convention on Biological Diversity COP in November in Nagoya, Japan, we can all feel a lot more secure about the future of multilateralism.

Despite the central political issues essentially being shelved (such as what happens next with the Kyoto Protocol and the still inadequate pledges to reduce overall global emissions), there were some definite wins in Cancun:

Forests are finally and rightfully part of the equation. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted a decision recognizing Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (aka “REDD”) as a legitimate mechanism to fight climate change. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the Cancun Agreements established the signal that efforts to reduce emissions from tropical forests, already well underway in a number of countries, will be recognized and rewarded.

There will be a new “Green Climate Fund” under the Convention. It is intended as a vehicle to channel a significant portion of the long-term climate finance promised under the Copenhagen Accord. This has the potential to grow into a significant financial mechanism for international assistance on climate change, but for now, we essentially just have a decision to open a bank account. The UNFCCC still needs to figure out how to how to decide who gets to make withdrawals, for how much, and for what purposes. No one is going to start making deposits into the fund until those issues are resolved.

A new Adaptation Framework will explicitly recognize the importance of ecosystems and natural-resource management. It also established an Adaptation Committee under the Convention. Both of these developments signal an enhanced focus on the importance of adaptation generally in national climate change and development strategies.

The country emissions-reduction and finance commitments pledged in Copenhagen have been formally recognized by the UNFCCC process. In addition to the Adaptation Committee, the Cancun Agreements established a Standing Committee on finance, a technology mechanism, and an international system to monitor and review the adequacy of what countries are doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But, in case you thought we had reached a final agreement with those 29 pages, well, not so fast: there are some dozen or so unresolved issues still on the table that have been queued up for the UN conferences in December 2011 and December 2012. Many of these are to elaborate the decisions taken above. So, in the case of REDD, the UNFCCC still has to provide guidance on setting forest-sector emissions baselines and forest carbon monitoring techniques, a mechanism to review safeguards for REDD projects and programs, and it still has to sort out the role of markets in the future financing of REDD.

To put all this in perspective, the UN Secretariat has indicated that it is expecting to arrange another four to six negotiating sessions over the course of 2011 before we get to the next big conference in December in Durban, South Africa. And there is no guarantee that they will all be sorted out within the year.

In other words, it’s already time to get right back on the negotiating treadmill. But the biggest challenges are still going to be back in national capitals – and those relate to finding the political will to effectively reduce emissions in the long term.

The second part of this series will detail why an agreement was reached this year and what that says about the negotiating process going forward.

Andrew Deutz is director of international government relations at The Nature Conservancy

Photo by: Flickr user UN Climate Talks (COP16 UN and Mexican flags)

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