Why did Cancun work where Copenhagen failed?

This is a re-post from Politico by CAP’s John D. Podesta and Andrew Light.

The United Nations climate summit’s Cancun Agreements were a critical step toward an effective compact to fight global warming after many years of disappointing climate meetings. But why did Cancun work where Copenhagen failed? Three factors helped the notoriously difficult negotiating process.

First, the Cancun Agreements had a good foundation in the Copenhagen Accord, which emerged from last year’s climate summit.

What many forget is that the Copenhagen Accord was designed to be a political agreement advancing an agenda for a final legal agreement. But when the Copenhagen Accord was born “” thanks to President Barack Obama and the leaders of the biggest carbon emitters in the developing world “” it proved an unsteady delivery. Five countries out of 193 withheld consent, so the document was never an official U.N. decision under the consensus rules that govern these meetings. As a result, several parties walked back their agreement over the summer. Many refused to acknowledge the accord as a point of departure for further negotiations.

The Mexican hosts of the Cancun climate summit, led by Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa, did two critical things: First, they gave the substance of the Copenhagen text the U.N.’s full imprimatur, and they expanded the original six thin pages to 30 dense pages of programmatic language.

The result is a set of building blocks that can serve as the foundation for a complete climate treaty. Most important, the parties agreed to limit emissions from deforestation “” equal to all carbon emissions from global transportation. Addressing deforestation is key to success in forging a global agreement.

They also agreed to guidelines requiring all parties to develop a national plan to adapt to the climate change already occurring and to rules for the transfer of technology from rich to poor countries, to assist with adoption of low-carbon development pathways.

Moreover, the parties created a Green Climate Fund “” which can gather and dispense global resources, as well as leverage private capital “” to make this package a reality.

Second, the expectations for Cancun were lower than for Copenhagen “” making it possible to reach a decision.

One of Copenhagen’s biggest handicaps was the expectation that it would be a final climate treaty. When the parties failed to deliver, the political agreement that was achieved was labeled a failure.

So the pact’s very real achievements “” like establishing targets for climate finance and compelling parties representing more than 80 percent of global emissions to register their reduction goals “” went largely unrecognized or were dismissed.

That mistake was not made in Cancun. Rather than raising expectations by bringing more than 100 world leaders to christen a global pact, a lower-profile affair, with relatively few heads of state, produced a far more substantive outcome. The Mexicans, surprisingly, got practically everything they put on the table at the start “” something almost no one expected them to achieve.

Unfortunately, the Cancun Agreements have instead been pronounced a “modest success.” While they advance the climate agenda, they do not solve the problem by locking in reductions from the world’s major carbon polluters sufficient to achieve the agreement’s goals of limiting temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.

But if the assembled parties had been asked to increase their national commitments in a binding treaty in Cancun, the meeting certainly would have failed “” and we would be left with another year of starting over. Instead, we have a substantive agreement that requires the parties to address this problem next year in Durban, South Africa, advancing a stepwise solution.

Third, Espinosa and her team were able to find a way past one of the core sources of the deadlock that has hampered the U.N. climate body since its inception: the consensus rule that gives all parties an effective veto over any agreement.

Through a technicality in the meetings’ rules, a chairman or chairwoman has discretionary authority to set aside some objections “” though this option has rarely been used in the name of procedural integrity. But at 3 a.m. one day, when only Bolivia stood in the way of success at Cancun, insisting that its opposition to the agreements should be sufficient to end the meeting with no outcome, Espinosa gaveled away the negotiator’s objection. “Of course, I do note your opinion,” Espinosa said. “And if there is no other opinion, this text is approved.”

What made this possible was that Espinosa had the full support of the room. Working closely with the new U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change executive secretary, Christiana Figueres, the Mexican foreign secretary outflanked the Bolivians by running a process so open and transparent that all the other parties felt their interests sufficiently represented in the negotiated text. By doing so, Espinosa demonstrated that the real threat to the integrity of the U.N. climate body is not a divergence from the rules but the intransigence of some of the parties.

As a result, we now have an agreement on critical areas of carbon mitigation and adaption to climate change. While not yet solving the global warming problem, Cancun advances substantive areas of agreement “” and vindicates a process that many were ready to abandon.

— John D. Podesta is president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress. Andrew Light is associate director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

21 Responses to Why did Cancun work where Copenhagen failed?

  1. William P says:

    This is success? Basically an agreement to talk more and containing unquantified goals?

  2. Steve Bloom says:

    “Work” was defined down to include pretending that there was a positive outcome. Sorry, Joe, the yardstick for the success of these things remains the physical science, and by that measure we remain in full failure mode.

    IMHO it’s dangerous for organizations like CAP to overstate these things.

  3. Steve Bloom #2:

    “Work” was defined down to include pretending that there was a positive outcome. Sorry, Joe, the yardstick for the success of these things remains the physical science, and by that measure we remain in full failure mode.

    Joe’s follow-up blog post (which I hope won’t happen): “Liberals are upset about Cancún and viewing it as a ‘failure’, because Obama didn’t get his ‘messaging’ right.”

    Joe, promise me you won’t write such a blog post.


  4. Patrick Kloska says:

    It is too late to solve the climate problem. Even if fossil fuel use stopped today, we’d still be far above the safe 350 ppm limit, and CO2 levels will remain elevated for thousands of years. Most of the warming is already locked in and in the pipeline. Because of lags in the system, we’re now feeling the effects of CO2 levels in the 1970s. When we start feeling the effects of today’s CO2 levels, temperatures will be high enough to trigger runaway warming due to various feedback loops and Arctic methane release.

    James Lovelock had it right. If you’re old, just enjoy life the best you can and hope you die peacefully before the shit hits the fan. If you’re young, move to a rural area and learn to live off the grid and become self-sufficient.

  5. Russ Hailey says:

    There was very little media coverage of Cancun compared to Copenhagen last year. I’m sure that had a lot to do with getting on with the business at hand rather than being subjected to a media circus around the time of climategate.

  6. paulm says:

    Because it was sunny and on the beach, maybe?

    Canada’s denial government is working flat out to not only to ignore, but to disrupt global action on climate warming. (it harder for an oil rich nation to accept climate action than for a camel pass through the eye of a needle)

    I think they were under the illusion that global warming was not going to affect Canada very much, very soon.
    Well 2010 has been a shock they are just waking up to.!/pages/Climate-Portals/139434822741700

  7. dan allen says:

    umm…not a success

  8. Solveig says:

    Good analysis and I agree with it. Anybody who knows anything about multilateralism knows that agreement is always a success. Why multilateralism is important here is that because we will simply not be able to do enough by ourselves – “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Who knows what we could do if the US managed to agree among themselves on climate change legislation!

  9. dp says:

    “the real threat to the integrity of the U.N. climate body is” — its targets.

    let’s award ourselves the bronze this year, with eyes fixed on our long-term goal of a silver medal.

  10. Barry says:

    Patrick (#4), you may be right that it is too late…but the best climate data says it isn’t.

    Even some of the most concerned climate scientists, like James Hansen, think there is still time to stabilize at 350ppm.

    The science is pretty clear we just need to *stabilize* at 350ppm. It isn’t game over to go over 350ppm as long as we don’t overshoot too much for too long. Hansen has lots of detail on this and on how we can get back to 350ppm quickly enough in his book “Storms of My Grandchildren”.

    I recommend you read his book or work before throwing in the towel and dumping “it’s too late to act” negativity all over everyone else. Thanks.

  11. “James Lovelock had it right. If you’re old, just enjoy life the best you can and hope you die peacefully”

    Does James Lovelock enjoy life? I would have guessed that he is one of the gloomiest people around.

  12. paulm says:

    Charles Siegel why to you google this.
    He seems to be taking things in there stride.

  13. Patrick Kloska says:

    Barry (#10): I don’t see how we can stabilize at 350 ppm. Right now, we’re at 390 ppm. If we continue business as usual (BAU), co2 levels will go much higher. If emissions are reduced, co2 levels will go higher, but not as much as in the BAU case. If we stopped burning fossil fuels today, CO2 levels will remain at 390ppm and slowly go down over the next few thousand years. In any case, we will remain above 350 ppm for at least several centuries.

    Charles Siegel (#11) I don’t know whether Lovelock enjoys life. But what I do know is that he believes that it’s too late for action to reduce warming:

    “Global warming has passed the tipping point, and catastrophe is unstoppable.

    “It’s just too late for it,” he says. “Perhaps if we’d gone along routes like that in 1967, it might have helped. But we don’t have time.”

    “What would Lovelock do now, I ask, if he were me? He smiles and says: “Enjoy life while you can. Because if you’re lucky it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan.”

  14. MarkF says:

    paulm says:
    December 17, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    “Canada’s denial government is working flat out to not only to ignore, but to disrupt global action on climate warming. ”

    not only that,

    The Canadian Broadcasting corp appears to have completely abandoned the coverage of climate change after doing a very good job two or three years ago.

    As far as I know, Cancun was not mentioned on “the Current” . The current at one time covered this very well, now, nothing that I have heard.

    Last night’s National news bravely managed to pose the question are the Canadian weather extremes caused by Climate change.

    according to the reporter they sent out to do a very brief report, the short answer is …. no.

    I don’t listen to that network anymore.

  15. Patrick–Hansen’s numbers are pretty clear that we could be back at 350 before century’s end if we got cracking now. Damage will be done in the meantime, but the question is: difficult century or impossible one?

    The bad news is that the Cancun/Durban etc process as it now stands is headed straight for–at best–a 550 ppm world. That is to say, it’s not anything like ‘getting cracking now.’ So it seems to me exceedingly modestly good news that it’s ‘on track.’ My take here:

  16. Robert Brulle says:


    I presume you mean:

    Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling, R. Berner, V. Masson-Delmotte, M. Pagani, M. Raymo, D.L. Royer, and J.C. Zachos, 2008: Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J., 2, 217-231, doi:10.2174/1874282300802010217

    Online at:

    This paper specifies a course of action that leads to a 100% phase out of all coal burning plants by 2030. Hansen concludes by stating:

    “Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects. The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is Herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.”

    Given this requirement, I fail to see how Cancun can be seen to be a success by scientific standards. No binding CO2 reduction strategies were even discussed, much less agreed to. What Podesta and Light are claiming is political success, with “promises” of further action. Every year of “success” like this brings us closer to climate catastrophe.

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    Patrick Kloska, Lovelock also said

    James Lovelock on biochar: Let the Earth remove CO2 for us
    George Monbiot is wrong to dismiss biochar out of hand – burying carbon is one way to tackle climate change

    I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550bn tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9% of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eaten.

    Lovelock: biochar as solution to global climate change

    Note he hints biochar solution after his poker idea of hiding it out inside an bunker arc. Even Lovelock realized that you cannot survive 100.000 years inside an bunker. A bunker because nuclear fallout pollution from conflicts is very likely – if people do not tackle the problem.

  18. Ed Hummel says:

    To me, the one thing that Cancun showed more than anything else is that we’ll continue to quibble over miniscule cuts and targets and who will help pay for third world green development. That strikes me as nothing more than fiddling while Rome burns. Going into Copenhagen, there was a definite consensus among scientists and climate activists that some real numbers had to be reached in a short amount of time to turn things around the way Hansen and his people have calculated must happen if we’re to get back to 350 before things get completely out of hand. There was no such urgency at Cancun where negotiators seemed to have thrown in the towel to politics as usual even before the conference started. So I reluctantly have to agree with Patrick and Lovelock that the time for turning things around has already passed since 1967 would in fact have been an opportune time to fiddle while gradually coming to some agreements. There is no time now for such niceties. Barring the rise of some unforeseen benevolent world dictator who will force what has to be done according to Hansen’s numbers, or else the complete and utter collapse of the world economy because of more financial shenanigans, or something else drastic that I can’t think of, I think heading toward 550ppm later in this century as Bill McKibben pointed out is a foregone conclusion. So, Bill, I wouldn’t even call it “exceedingly modestly good news”; I would call it just one more political disaster that will help us reach the ultimate environmental disaster envisioned by Lovelock (already too late) and Hansen (almost already too late).

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    Btw, Joe wouldn’t it be cool to have Dr Lovelock interviewing him or offering a guest post?
    He seems to frequently give the guardian and such interviews, and always shares insightful wisdom and has a message. I think maybe he even reads CP, would be great to read his words here at CP!

  20. Anne van der Bom says:

    Everyone waiting for the Meeting That Fixes Global Warming is mistaken.

    The world can not and will not solve this problem by adopting a big masterplan written by a group of experts. That is how a communist country would approach this. But we are dealing with an entire planet with more than 200, very different countries. We can only do this by ‘learning on the job’, with a progressive series of steps, some small, others somewhat bigger, mostly forward, sometimes backward or sideways.

    The ‘big bang’ approach will not work and pursuing it will only result in gridlock and countries digging their heels in the sand. If you see the apparently small steps taken in Cancun as little seeds, then, if we take care of them, they may result in big trees.

    The mantra everyone should adopt is ‘keep moving’.

  21. dan h. says:

    Certainly we can’t expect a singular “Meeting That Fixes Global Warming” – but even if the Cancun Agreement was the best politically-possible outcome, that doesn’t necessarily make it a success. Like Bill (comment #15) wrote in the article he linked: “Political reality is hard to change [. . .] But physics and chemistry are downright impossible to shift.” The bottom line is that we need to stabilize around 350ppm – Cancun may be a procedural victory, but can you honestly say you believe it puts us on a realistic path toward that goal? I certainly can’t. If this is the best we can do given our “political reality,” then that’s an indictment of our global political order, not a reason to pat ourselves on the back for doing the most that was politically possible.

    Which brings up a semi-related point: I’ve been very disappointed in the characterization – at least in the writing from CAP – of Bolivia’s objections as obstructionist and counterproductive. I don’t think it would’ve been appropriate to let a single nation derail agreement, but still, the dismissive attitude toward Bolivia is upsetting. Bolivia is a developing nation which stands to lose a lot from climate change, not a denialist wrench-thrower. To me, if we lazily brush aside the more aggressive climate stance of Bolivia and the other ALBA nations, we’re saying that when it comes right down to it, we’re indeed more concerned with preserving the existing “political reality” than with stopping catastrophic warming.