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Breakthrough Made in U.N. Climate Talks Breakthrough Made in U.N. Climate Talks

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Breakthrough Made in U.N. Climate Talks

All-night negotiating session produces agreement


India's Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh, said "God has been very close to Mexico,” after a breakthrough was reached this morning at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico.(OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)

CANCUN, Mexico – Defying expectations, the United Nations early this morning adopted a climate change agreement that paves the way for a binding global climate treaty and resurrects the battered U.N. climate process.

Although talks leading up to the agreement ran through the night, the mood was joyous, congratulatory, and often tearfully emotional as it became evident by late evening that nearly every party in the 193-member body approved the deal. It emerged only after weeks of negotiations that as recently as Friday morning seemed deadlocked. The U.N. plenary sessions were punctuated by lengthy standing ovations and declarations of praise between parties – an almost unprecedented scene for this body.


The stakes were high: At last year’s U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, where over 100 world leaders converged in an effort to forge a binding global treaty, the talks were riven with acrimony and ultimately collapsed without adoption of a final document.

Since then, many veterans of the 20-year climate change negotiation process have feared that the multilateral U.N. efforts were hanging by a thread – and failure at the Cancun talks to reach a deal could have signaled their demise. Climate policy advocates also feared that one outcome of the Cancun talks might be a lowest common denominator agreement that on paper met the minimum requirements to keep the climate process sputtering along but little else.

Diplomats here, shepherded by Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, appear to have crafted a deal that balances the competing demands of the United States and China, major and emerging economies, vulnerable island nations and petrostates – but also wins generally favorable reviews from climate policy advocates.


The Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first global climate treaty expires in 2012, and the Cancun deal represents the platform on which a new treaty will be built. And although climate science advocates were largely supportive of the Cancun deal, some were also quick to point out that as it stands, the language will not be enough to prevent world temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius, the amount scientists say is necessary to stave off the worst ravages of climate change.

The Cancun agreement requires the world’s largest emitters – among them the United States., China, the European Union, India and Brazil – to commit to various forms of emissions reduction by 2020. It creates an independent panel of experts countries would report greenhouse gas inventories to and that would monitor and verify reported cuts in emissions.

It would set up a “green fund” to help poor countries adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, to which rich countries would collectively contribute $100 billion annually starting in 2020. It would set up a program in which rich countries would send money to poor countries to preserve rainforests from being cut down. It would also create a “technology transfer program” for rich countries to share clean energy technology with poor countries.

“This package is not going to solve climate change by itself but it is a good step forward and will move the world down the path to a global response,” said U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern. “We’re not there yet, but we’re a lot closer than we were before. It’s a big step.”


“The Cancun agreement will usher in a new era of cooperation on climate change,” said Espinosa, whose diplomacy here was characterized by delegates here as sophisticated, tireless, and supremely effective. Observers say that Mexico’s masterful ability to broker a seemingly broken deal could go far towards elevating its position in global diplomatic circles, and in negotiating on other issues.

“This … represents a significant win for multilateralism at a time when it is very important to the world,” said Australian climate change minster Greg Combet.

“It provides a pathway to achieve major emissions cuts. It would provide economic opportunities for vulnerable developing nation. … It is a historic step forward.”

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Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh put things most poetically. “Tonight, God has been very close to Mexico,” he said. Addressing Espinosa, he added, “And if I may say so, since I come from a country with more goddesses than gods, a goddess has been present today. You have not only crafted balanced agreement but you have restored confidence in the multilateral process at a time when confidence in this process had hit a historic low.”

Like Mexico, India has been a star in these negotiations. Ramesh was the architect of language on emissions monitoring transparency that ultimately served to break an impasse between the United States and China.

“We are basically satisfied,” said Chinese Environment Minister Xie Zhenwua . “Regretfully, the negotiation task is not completely fulfilled. … This indicates that next year’s negotiation task will be extremely difficult.”

That’s in keeping with the view of some climate scientists, who say that the language of the Cancun agreement is not strong enough.

“The outcome in Cancún wasn’t enough to save the climate,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But it did restore the credibility of the United Nations as a forum where progress can be made."


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