On Climate Change, Cancun Agreements Show a Pathway Forward

In 2007 on the island of Bali in Indonesia, governments from around the world agreed to start negotiating an agreement for long-term action to address climate change. Three years and 15 negotiation sessions later, in a conference room in Cancun, Mexico early Saturday morning, 193 countries (all members of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, except for Bolivia) made a historic series of decisions.

The Cancun Agreements represent a critical step for reinvigorating the international climate change policy process after a disappointing lack of agreement in Copenhagen last year. However, they are only the skeleton of a policy and financial framework that will be necessary to ensure that greenhouse gases are reduced to a level low enough to avoid severe impacts and to make sure countries can deal with current impacts and preparing for future ones.

The Cancun Agreements set forth a balanced package of decisions that include:

  • A framework for a partnership between developed and developing countries to halt deforestation. Protecting tropical forests (or — as it’s known by international climate negotiators — REDD+) is set up to allow countries the flexibility to participate on sub-national levels while building a national program. This would enable conservation of critical, carbon-rich forests to begin now. The REDD+ framework also includes important protections for forest peoples and biodiversity. The success of REDD+ in this agreement is due in part to the significant efforts by countries (both developed and developing), the private sector and civil society on the ground and at the national level, which demonstrated the readiness of REDD+ activities to go forward.
  • The Cancun Adaptation Framework, which raises the profile of adaptation in the policy dialogue, acknowledging the reality of climate impacts that people and ecosystems are already seeing. This framework establishes an adaptation committee and a work program which will consider approaches to loss and damage linked to unavoidable climate impacts in vulnerable countries. It also highlights the elements countries should be considering in adaptation action: building resilience of ecological systems; conducting impact, vulnerability and adaptation assessments; engaging vulnerable communities in participatory processes; and valuing traditional indigenous knowledge and the best available science.

Another notable achievement in Cancun is that the United States is supporting this agreement — unlike 1997’s Kyoto Protocol. In the upcoming years, all countries must flesh out their actions, articulate binding emissions cuts, and provide substantial finance and technology transfer to support the mitigation and adaptation actions of the developing world.

Multilateral processes aren’t easy; that was obvious in Copenhagen. But Cancun has shown us that the UNFCCC is still alive and kicking. And that’s a good thing, because we’re never going to solve a problem like climate change with action by just a few. Although many details need to be worked out on our way to the next major negotiating session in South Africa, finally, there is a pathway forward.

To learn more about the outcomes of the Cancun meeting, read our press release.