cancun climate changeProgress was made on a number of important issues at the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancun last week, but the US Senate’s failure to pass clean energy legislation tied the hands of negotiators to come to a full global deal.

by Tracey de Morsella, Green Economy Post.  Follow Tracey on Twitter @greeneconpost.

The United Nations climate change conference in Cancun wrapped up two weeks of negotiations at dawn this morning with agreement on a package of decisions that UN officials are hailing as a victory. Many will likely see the resulting agreements as a sign that the talks failed and could look at the United State’s Congress’ opposition as a major factor.

The outcome is an “important success for a world much in need of it,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today. “Governments came together in common cause, for the common good, and agreed on a way forward to meet the defining challenge of our time.”

Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate official, said, “Cancun has done its job. The beacon of hope has been reignited and faith in the multilateral climate change process to deliver results has been restored.”

Throughout the conference, countries struggled to agree on extending the Kyoto Protocol past the the close of its first commitment period at the end of 2012. Russia, which is legally bound by the Kyoto Protocol, opposed its extension. Japan, which is now covered by the protocol, said last week it would not agree to a second commitment period unless the United States and China sign on to the treaty. Canada abandoned its commitment years ago. The United States, which never ratified the protocol, will not approve any treaty unless major economies such as China and India are also covered.

As governments abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, negotiators in Cancun focused on less controversial goals – protection for carbon-absorbant forests and their indigenous inhabitants, a fund to help developing countries cope with climate impacts, and clean-energy technology sharing.

But developing countries were clinging to the protocol as their only insurance against the devastating impacts of global warming – melting glaciers, drought, floods, sea level rise, disease migration and species extinctions.

At one point, China answered efforts to ban credits from industrial gas projects in the European carbon market by threatening to release potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere unless developed nations pay what environmental groups are calling a “climate ransom.”

Despite having received nearly US$1 billion to destroy waste gas produced during the manufacture of HCFC-22 refrigerant, an ozone-depleting gas, China insisted on continued payments above the actual cost of destroying a substitute refrigerant gas, according to the nonprofit groups Environmental Investigation Agency and CDM Watch. China also recently rejected attempts to help developing countries abate HFC-23 emissions through the Montreal Protocol, which governs substances that destroy the ozone layer. China resisted any legally-binding treaty but ultimately allowed verification of its greenhouse gas emissions.

The Cancun Agreements recognize the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from rich countries by 25 to 40 percent from 1990 levels within the next 10 years. Current pledges amount to about 16 percent; the United States has pledged a 17 percent reduction by 2020. Delegates from 194 countries agreed to seek “deep cuts” in greenhouse gas emissions, but they put off the essential question of how much all nations will cut emissions to next year’s talks in Durban, South Africa.

They agreed that there should be no gap between the first and second commitment periods of the Kyoto Protocol, an addition to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC, that contains legally binding measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for 37 developed countries. The protocol’s first commitment period will expire at the end of 2012. Japan and Russia, now bound by the protocol, announced in Cancun that they would not enter a second commitment period.

Delegates agreed that carbon dioxide capture and storage in geological formations will be included as an eligible project activity under the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism. This flexible mechanism allows the 37 countries to fulfill their greenhouse gas emission obligations by investing in projects that reduce emissions in developing countries.

Delegates also agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund of US$30 billion of new contributions for the period 2010-?2012 to help the most vulnerable developing countries adapt to the unavoidable impacts of climate change and reduce their carbon footprints.

In the longer term, developed countries committed to a goal of mobilizing jointly US$100 billion per year by 2020 to address the needs of poorer countries. A “significant share” of new multilateral funding for adaptation should flow through the Green Climate Fund, which will be managed by the World Bank for the first three years, delegates agreed.

The Cancun Agreements include action to protect the world’s forests, important because deforestation accounts for nearly one-fifth of all global carbon dioxide emissions. Delegates decided to establish a three-phase process for tropical countries to reduce deforestation and receive compensation from developed countries in an agreement that includes protections for forest peoples and biodiversity. They also created a mechanism to share clean technologies to help developing countries move away from fossil fuels.

Most observers called the Cancun Agreements a modest achievement that puts climate negotiations back on track after the disappointing talks in Copenhagen.

“We have moved away from the post-Copenhagen paralysis,” said Claire Parker, senior climate change policy advisor with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Developing countries can now see new money on the table which they can draw on to adapt to the impacts they’re already facing and reduce emissions.”

“The real bright spot was moving forward with REDD+, the program to eliminate tropical deforestation,” said Doug Boucher, director of climate research and analysis with the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Washington, DC. “Historic changes are happening in conference halls and in the Amazon that can end thousands of years of deforestation in our lifetime.”

But others blamed the balance of power in the U.S. Congress for hampering the world’s ability to deal with damaging climate change.

Joe Mendelson, global warming policy director with the National Wildlife Federation, said today, “Progress was made on a number of important issues, but it’s clear the Senate’s failure to pass clean energy legislation tied the hands of negotiators to come to a full global deal. Formally recognizing the Copenhagen reduction targets, including the U.S. 17 percent reductions by 2020, still leaves the world woefully short of what needs to be done to tackle the climate crisis.”

© 2010, Tracey de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Tracey de Morsella (323 Articles)

Tracey de Morsella started her career working as an editor for US Technology Magazine. She used that experience to launch Delaware Valley Network, a publication for professionals in the Greater Philadelphia area. Years later, she used the contacts and resources she acquired to work in executive search specializing in technical and diversity recruitment. She has conducted recruitment training seminars for Wachovia Bank, the Department of Interior and the US Postal Service. During this time, she also created a diversity portal called The Multicultural Advantage and published the Diversity Recruitment Advertising Toolkit, a directory of recruiting resources for human resources professionals. Her career and recruitment articles have appeared in numerous publications and web portals including Woman Engineer Magazine,, Job Search Channel, Workplace Diversity Magazine, Society for Human Resource Management web site, NSBE Engineering Magazine,, and Human Resource Consultants Association Newsletter. Her work with technology professionals drew her to pursuing training and work in web development, which led to a stint at Merrill Lynch as an Intranet Manager. In March, she decided to combine her technical and career management expertise with her passion for the environment, and with her husband, launched The Green Economy Post, a blog providing green career information and covering the impact of the environment, sustainable building, cleantech and renewable energy on the US economy. Her sustainability articles have appeared on Industrial Maintenance & Plant Operation, Chem.Info,FastCompany and CleanTechies.