So close yet so far: The path to the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico


Current national pledges for climate action under the Copenhagen Accord are stronger than ever but national policies are still in search of an international framework to make them reliable. CAP’s Andrew Light has the story.

Representatives from 194 countries gather this week in Cancun, Mexico for the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or UNFCCC).  The meeting will run through December 10th and, predictably, will pull an emergency session all-nighter through to the 11th, though to do what this year no one knows for certain.  This is the body that succeeded in Copenhagen last year in crafting a non-binding political agreement, the Copenhagen Accord, that could serve as the foundation for creating a new binding climate treaty to either replace or complement the Kyoto Protocol.

Despite the fact that five countries – Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Sudan – used their veto in this body’s consensus process to block the Accord as an official COP decision, approximately 138 countries, including the 17 largest emitters in the world responsible for 80 percent of carbon pollution, aligned themselves with it and submitted pledges for GHG mitigation by the end of last January.  After a long year of negotiating the parties now reconvene for another bite at the apple.  Chances for a big success, such as final ratification of the Copenhagen Accord or a new legally binding treaty, approach zero but we could see significant progress on smaller but nonetheless critically important parts of a larger deal (such as so called “sectoral agreements”).

Emission Reduction Pledges To Date

To understand what could happen in Cancun it’s first important to understand where we are currently in international climate negotiations and national pledges to reduce emissions.  In the final run up to Copenhagen last year the world experienced a dramatic period where some of the most important players joined parties like the E.U. in finally announcing their commitments for emission reductions by 2020.  Most critical to the process were countries like the U.S., China and India which either by design or by choice are not bound to reducing emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.  Without the active participation of such countries it is impossible to get to climate safety.  But how significant were these pledges?

Before the Copenhagen meeting started last year CAP initiated our “Carbon Cap Equivalents” project.  Working with Project Catalyst, we started tracking the national commitments of all the major GHG emitters to try to assess how close those policies and pledges would get us to a 2020 stabilization pathway that had a decent chance of holding temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius if they were enacted.  (Holding temperature increase at 2C is largely, but not universally, agreed as the best case scenario for what can be achieved by collective global climate action at this time.  It is the temperature goal stipulated in the Copenhagen Accord though there is a requirement to investigate the possibility of stabilization at 1.5C at a later date.)  We found that even prior to the Copenhagen climate summit if all parties did everything they claimed they would do at that time the world was only five gigatons of annual emissions shy of an estimated seventeen gigatons of CO2 equivalent annual reductions needed to put us on a reasonable 2C pathway.  Since three gigatons of the projected reductions came from the economic downturn and improved projections on deforestation and peat emissions, the actual pledges of countries for additional reductions were slightly less than two-thirds of what was needed though still not sufficient for the 2C target.  In this context one good way of thinking about why we need some kind of climate agreement is to lock in the commitments that countries are willing to make – largely for reasons of self-interest – and to squeeze out of a system of cooperation additional reductions which can get us where we need to be to achieve some measure of climate safety.

After the Copenhagen Accord was finalized at the December 2009 climate summit a January 2010 deadline was established for countries to submit pledges for actions by 2020 consistent with the accord’s 2C goal.  Two break downs of the pledges in February, and later in March, by Project Catalyst estimated that the five gigaton gap had shrunk somewhat and more pledges had come in from developing countries.  Part of the reason that pledges had increased from developing countries was that the Copenhagen Accord had finally made a significant step forward on establishing a system of cooperation between developed and developing countries which had a chance at providing incentives for additional reductions.

Most critical was an agreement on climate finance – whereby donor countries would provide some developing countries with the assistance they needed to make the transition to a low carbon economy – and another which helped to reconcile differences between various parties on expectations for measuring, reporting and verifying promised mitigation actions (MRV).  As for the former the accord created a commitment for “fast start” funding from 2010-2012 at $30 billion for developing countries and pledged to mobilize a climate fund of $100 billion annually by 2020.  With these pledges in mind many developing countries made conditional pledges under the Copenhagen Accord, essentially promising a certain amount of reduction they would make on their own (which we call the “low Copenhagen scenario” in this analysis) and a certain amount they would do with support (a “high Copenhagen scenario”).

As the Cancun meeting gets started these estimates look even better [see figure above].

Now the five gigaton annual emissions gap between the high Copenhagen scenario and a 2C pathway is down to four gigatons.  And again, due to different estimates of where we are with business as usual (BAU) emissions, because of the economic downturn and other factors, the high Copenhagen scenario has us holding at two-thirds of where we need to be in terms of pledges to action.  Pledges, of course, are not what are needed but real programs on the ground corresponding to real emission reductions.  What we are getting though now is a concrete sense of what those steps will be with some of the largest carbon polluters, especially and perhaps most critically among the largest emerging economies.


Each of these programs represents a concentrated and significant amount of work in each country.  Insofar as those plans have been developed and some deployment has started this should be sufficient to quell the complaints of those who continue to claim, erroneously, that countries like China and India are doing nothing.  In fact, at this stage, their policy planning on GHG mitigation is at least as advanced as the U.S. if not more so.

State of the Negotiations

If national policies are moving forward, then are the negotiations helping to take the next critical steps of forming cooperative efforts that assist national deployment and holding countries accountable for the pledges that they make?

Any close observer of the last year of international climate negotiations would conclude that its been a difficult time.  Many of the accomplishments achieved in the Copenhagen Accord, especially on finding a compromise between developed and developing countries on MRV, and other technical matters eroded over a long summer of negotiations where confidence in the accord did not show the resilience that many had hoped to see.  The position of U.S. negotiators at least has been to express frustration about the inclination of some negotiators to walk back the positions that their leaders had negotiated personally in Copenhagen.

Nonetheless, progress has been made on other parts of the agreement, especially the initial delivery of the “fast start” financing.  The U.S. managed to deliver $1.7 billion in FY2010 and the administration is aiming to deliver approximately $4 billion total by 2012.  To help make the 2020 $100 billion climate fund a reality the UN Secretary General impaneled an Advisory Group on Finance (AGF) which produced a report released last month staking out the viability of various mechanisms which could be employed to meet the long term climate finance goal.  Nonetheless, many developing countries are understandably skeptical that the fund will move forward until they see more concrete steps to create it.  Next week we will release a report with several partner organizations identifying an interim strategy between 2012 and 2020 which might inspire more confidence in this process.

But as the Cancun summit turns to its more important second week of negotiations the biggest source of concern to many will be how the United States will meet its commitments under the Copenhagen Accord of reducing emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  While the House of Representatives passed a comprehensive climate and energy bill last year the Senate was not able to complete the congressional package with a bill of its own.  Coupled with the results of the mid-term elections no one seriously thinks a comprehensive climate bill is in the offing anytime soon.  While disappointing at home this result is positively threatening abroad.  If the world’s largest per-capita emitter is ultimately not able to deliver on its promised emission reductions under the Copenhagen Accord then other countries might well drop their commitments as well endangering the possibility of a global climate agreement.

Here, there is some good news.  A week and a half after the climate bill died in congress, the United States firmly announced that its commitments under the Copenhagen Accord, and therefore its global commitments on climate change to date, remained in place.  At the opening of an interim UN negotiating session in Bonn starting on August 2nd Jonathan Pershing, the U.S. deputy climate envoy, announced that the outcome at Cancun did not depend on passage of legislation and that the U.S. would still achieve its promises under the Copenhagen Accord by other means if necessary.  Pershing repeated this promise again in his opening press conference this past Monday saying, “We remain committed to President Obama’s pledge announced in Copenhagen last year for a reduction in GHG emissions in the range of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.”  When asked how they will deliver on this pledge Pershing, Climate Envoy Todd Stern, and others point to executive authority for rule making under the Clean Air Act through the EPA, state action, and the possibility of passing less comprehensive legislation moving forward.

There have already been some reports suggesting that it will be very difficult for the U.S. to hit this mark without further legislation.  Others see more potential in state programs than has been appreciated.  Regardless, what is clear is that at some point either the U.S. must be able to present to the world an action plan for hitting its mitigation targets or else an independent system of review must be created that can provide that assessment of the U.S. and all other international actors.

What to Expect

If we cannot expect a comprehensive agreement this time around then what could emerge from Cancun?  Again, the consensus view for sometime has been that the best chance is on a series of smaller, though not insignificant agreements, on deforestation, technology transfer, and the architecture for a global climate fund.  Each of these will be significant and CAP staffers will be on the ground in Cancun starting today to focus on the agreements that might move forward and the general atmospherics of the meeting.

Throughout the year the United States has insisted that it would not allow smaller pieces of an agreement to go forward, or, as Jonathan Pershing put it earlier in the week, “moving ahead on a few issues – deemed by some to be easy – while holding off on others – deemed by some to be difficult – is not be a path for success.”  In particular the U.S. has insisted on holding onto the gains that were made on an agreement on MRV in Copenhagen and expanding on them.  The essential position is that any progress on an agreement will be pointless if there is no way of verifying the emission reductions which different parties promise to make.  Unfortunately the official negotiating text going into the Cancun meeting does not yet include substantive language that could satisfy all parties.  The question that many are asking now is whether the U.S. will use lack of progress in this area to stop movement on smaller agreements on forestry and other areas.

Since the last interim negotiating session finished in Tianjin, China in October, the buzzword around this issue has been “ICA” – “International Consultation and Analysis.”  The Indian government, among others, have actively been pursuing a compromise position with the U.S. to agree to a system of ICA for all actions by all parties even if those actions, in the case of developing countries, are not supported by external climate finance which might come with more stringent reporting constraints.  If a proposal on ICA survives the meeting then it could ensure substantive agreements in other areas.  If it does not then the meeting may end in a show down between those who want to move forward on individual parts of a climate treaty and those who do not.

As with last year’s climate summit, however, I’ll be ready to blame the process rather than particular parties in the even that nothing emerges from this meeting other than an agreement to meet again next year.  The UNFCCC is notoriously difficult, making the U.S. Senate’s sixty vote threshold for action enviable.  Political and legal agreements emerging from this forum require consensus so all 194 parties have a veto.  Failure to make any gains this year will only increase calls for more climate action in smaller forums, like the G20 or the U.S. led Major Economies Forum.  The result might mean a better chance at coming to an agreement but in doing so we will inherit an equally difficult problem:  how to adequately represent the interests of the entire world into a process that won’t have all parties around the table.  Let’s hope that the negotiators will act in good faith to avoid such a predicament.

– Andrew Light is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator of International Climate Policy at the Center for American Progress.  He will be leading CAP’s delegation this year at the UN climate change summit in Cancun, Mexico.

11 Responses to So close yet so far: The path to the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico

  1. john atcheson says:

    At the risk of being cynical, relying on “pledges” absent an effective international framework WITH SANCTIONS for non compliance, is sort of like relying on tax cuts to generate revenue … it falls into the category of the tooth fairy and Santa Claus. Nice myths, but at the end of the day, nothing you’d want to count on.

    So, if it wasn’t for the fact that the beach at Cancun is eroding away, you could say the whole thing is based on a foundation of sand.

  2. Ziyu says:

    The US’s first step other than EPA authority should be to repeal all fossil fuels subsidies including oil spill coverage and royalty relief.
    Mandate 35 mpg by 2020, 40 mpg by 2030 and 50 mpg by 2040. Make a renewable energy standard 15% by 2020, 23% by 2030, 31% by 2040, and 40% by 2050. Make a renewable fuels standard of 10% by 2020 and 40% by 2050. But limit corn ethanol to 15% of the target in 2050. Mandate energy efficiency improvements of 10% by 2020 and 30% by 2050. Extend the renewable energy treasury grant program, appropriate $400 million for electric vehicle rollout, and give incentives for conversions to natural gas. I wish the NYT had emissions cutting selections like the one they have for closing the deficit. Then I could know how much emissions cuts each move would make.

  3. Roger Wehage says:

    So what has Kyoto accomplished? A lot of hot air, as far as I can tell. And we can expect little more than that into the foreseeable future. It’s always the other country’s responsibility.

  4. dbmetzger says:

    the news video from VOA

    Cancun Conference Confronts Global Warming
    Representatives from more than 190 nations are attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun. They’re hoping to reach accords on a number of issues while leaving a comprehensive, legally binding agreement for next year.

  5. Dan says:

    Great analysis– it’s rare to see commentators approach UNFCCC with such cautious optimism and clear-eyed analysis. The discussion of “ICA” was new to me.

    Does anyone know: Is it possible to modify the UNFCCC charter to require less than 100% consent? 5 small countries, including Venezuela, should NOT have a grip over international climate policy.

  6. progressive engineer says:

    Cancún climate change summit: Japan refuses to extend Kyoto protocol

    Talks threatened with breakdown after forthright Japanese refusal to extend Kyoto emissions commitments

    WTF is up with Japan?

  7. Desni Smith says:

    Looks like Japan is committed to reatin it’s own sovereignty.

  8. B Byrne says:

    Pack it in gang.
    It’s over.

  9. B Byrne says:

    Better book an early flight out before the big flood.

  10. Delia says:

    To Dan (5.): unfortunately Saudi Arabia blocked the roles of procedure which would allow majority voting. This makes progress slow in the international negotiations – however it also means every step forward is then agreed by all. Still, personally I’d welcome majority voting……

    To Desni (7.): how far can national sovereignity stretch if it touches upon a common global good such as an intact atmosphere? In my opinion, the common good is a lot more important, though several big countries in the negotiations certainly don’t see it that way.

    From Cancun,

  11. Frank Zaski says:

    Could they at least agree on energy efficiency improvement goals, something most countries probably could agree to? We see that big, top-down agreements are very difficulty to achieve in the US and internationally. Perhaps, a series of smaller agreements on EE, RE forest preservation, etc. could at least further this process.

    Studies indicate that EE could cut world-wide CO2 emissions growth considerably. World-wide sharing of EE best practices, technology, funding and other is needed.

    But, strong, world-wide coordination and organizations seems to be lacking. Alliance to Save Energy has some international efforts. Could the United Nations be the big solution?