The Quiet Aftermath

The Cancun Climate Talks Made Progress, But Offered No Binding Commitments

Greenpeace demonstrators in Cancun, Mexico. The environmental group has supported the progress made during the Cancun climate talks, but says more is needed.
© Greenpeace

The recently ended United Nations climate talks held in Cancun, Mexico, did not draw the colorful demonstrations of the Copenhagen climate talks last December, but they have, overall, been more successful. World governments agreed, for instance, that countries need to remain below a two-degree temperature rise. And nations have also been granted an additional year to decide whether or not to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto, while it required industrialized nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to assist the developing world in pursuing alternatives to fossil fuel, was not legally binding, so has not produced the results that experts say are needed to prevent catastrophic climate change impacts like flooding, droughts and disease.

The Cancun Agreements, which also offer little more than guidelines and promised aid, might be seen as yet another stumbling block on the road to serious emissions reductions. But the reaction from environmental groups and world leaders is quite the opposite. Cancun, they say, represents real hope that those emissions targets will someday be set and met. While the Copenhagen climate talks were largely vague on details, the Cancun talks laid out clear goals: countries must measure and disclose their emissions, and were offered a way to do so; emissions-reductions targets were strengthened; and a fund to help poorer nations respond to climate change and be rewarded for preserving tropical forests and other resources was established. Ultimately, developed nations agreed to contribute $100 billion to struggling nations by 2020 to support climate action.

With so many parties and divergent interests coming to the table—194 member states, to be exact—it is little wonder that climate talks are slow going. But nations are also beginning to find consensus and reach nearer to an agreement that might, it is hoped, bring with it binding emission targets. Greenpeace, while it indicated that the Cancun talks offered some measure of hope, also expressed disappointment that more progress was not made. They noted, for instance, that the financial commitment set forth to aid poorer nations did not reveal how those billions would be funded.

And the group notes: "More could have been accomplished in Cancun if not for the negative influence of the United States, Russia and Japan. The latter two were unhelpful by their statements against the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, while the U.S. came to Mexico with meager commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, despite being the world's highest emitter in history, watered down several important areas of agreement and put a successful outcome in doubt."

As with all the climate talks thus far, this one, too, pushes the hard decisions off to the next such conference.

BRITA BELLI is editor of E.

SOURCES: Greenpeace; New York Times.