The “success” of the COP16 climate negotiations in Cancun

Liz Law

After the media circus around COP15 in Copenhagen, COP16 barely managed a blip on the radar.

What was it like? Interesting. Absurd. Atrocious. Intriguing. These words would all fit the bill.

I wasn’t sure what to expect at first, and still am not quite sure what to make of it.

The setting

There was strong indication that there was not to be a repeat of the Copenhagen circus. For one, there was to be no snow, only the long white sand and turquoise blue of Caribbean beaches. From the opening the ES Cristiana Figueres made it clear that they had every intention of achieving an agreement in Cancun, if only to create the impression that the UNFCCC process can achieve something. Compromise was strongly pushed. She also made strong statements regarding transparency of the process, a response to the backlash against the closed doors in previous meetings.

The spatial allocation of venues was clearly an exercise in avoiding any “incident” – such as negotiators and diplomats meeting with demonstrations and protestors. The main negotiations took place at an exclusive resort, miles from anywhere, quite isolated from the public by multiple security checkpoints, and surrounded by military on both land and sea. At over US$500 a night, and limited capacity, you can imagine how this would restrict the people who could stay on location. Media offices were so far from the main rooms that they had to have a mini bus to take them there, and the closed doors and restricted capacities in some rooms seemed to be intentional strategic barriers for many attendees.

The side events were held at a different venue, about 30 mins away from both the city and the main negotiation venue. Again strictly controlled by a military presence, there was virtually no opportunity for non-conference attendees to make any sort of presence there. They really should be called “sideshows”, they are an eclectic series of random events from industry promotions, science reports, advocacy rants, and community sing-alongs. Almost all showered you with a forest load of reading material to compliment the non-climate friendly air conditioning. Networking was clearly the primary aim for most people’s game, but it was also useful to gain a wider perspective on what is certainly a multifaceted mess.

The Negotiations

Despite the claims of “transparency” by the chair, many of the nuts and bolts meetings were closed to non-party members, and draft text and non-papers were often released only minutes before the opportunity for civil society to comment. The formalities of the negotiations were tedious, even with limits on how long people could talk, meetings dragged on. NGOs were organised into 9 groups- Environmental NGOs, Business and Industry NGOs, Research INGOs, Women and Gender, YOUth NGOs, Indigenous, Farmers, Local governments, and Trade unions.  Although the power of these groups is in the numbers they represent when they say something, the diversity of interests within them often made it difficult for them to agree on anything of consequence to say.

The Agreements

Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF)

This refers to the way emissions from LULUCF are calculated, monitored and reported in developed countries with emissions targets. LULUCF rules are important: they can be significant volumes of emissions, and, as was evidenced by Australia in the KP negotiations, the choice of baseline and methodology of monitoring really matters – we’ve thus been able to achieve our target comfortably (indeed an increase in emissions). Unfortunately, there was no overall LULUCF agreement and negotiations are to continue next year.

Reference baselines, while “transparently” set, include a variety of methodologies – setting a dangerous precedent for REDD+. Forestry accounting guidelines have also not been selected, and whether these are to account for, for example, just the change in forest land, or include the emissions sequestered by all forest, natural or otherwise, is still to be decided. A cap in emissions and removals allowed under LULUCF, as well as the treatment of “force majeure” (extreme ‘natural’ events) are also yet to be decided. I noted also that peat rewetting has been posited as an optional activity for developed countries to meet their targets, despite rejecting it from the CDM just a few years ago – the CDM being the main “offset” mechanism in which generates carbon credits from activities in developing countries…

There’s a big push to get these rules down before targets are agreed upon (or else targets can’t be evaluated due to all these potential loopholes), however LULUCF remains a large chasm to a full agreement.


A national approach was taken, and that combined with emphasis on diverse drivers of deforestation means that virtually any activity that might affect emissions from forests could be funded through REDD+ finance. REDD+ will be “results based”, but participating nations can effectively design their own reference levels and strategies. While monitoring is stated to require robustness and transparency, there is still a great amount of flexibility in how this can be done (echoing LULUCF, and the loopholes involved in that). “Safeguards” were included, with a vague instruction to ‘provide information’ on how these were being addressed. So essentially the nature of REDD+ on the ground will really depend on how the participating parties decide to do it. Financing options on an international scale are still largely “to be explored”, and it is pretty clear that market options remain firmly on the table.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)

The CDM, currently the major offset mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, gained some new directives, including improved governance, streamlining of the process (e.g. standardised baselines), and attempts to balance regional biases, however forestry seems to have dropped off the radar (in anticipation of REDD+). There was little discussion relevant to strengthening the sustainable development objectives of the CDM – rather, more actions that would encourage the opposite. I heard a scary statistic that only 0.5% of the money in the offset market actually reaches communities involved (but can’t find a solid reference for that). An interesting development is that Carbon Capture and Storage in geological formations (CCS) has been allowed into the CDM, with specifics regarding methodology to be agreed on next year. This makes me again question the ruling against peat rewetting in this context.

There was also a large emphasis on addressing adaptation in UNFCCC process, with movement towards developing a “Green Climate Fund”, and the “Cancun Adaptation Framework” was set up to facilitate development and implementation of adaptation projects – allowing a whole new range of projects to access climate finance. The complete range of documents produced is available from the UNFCCC website.

A facade of success?

Despite last minute efforts by Bolivia to block progress (interestingly because the agreements amounted to not doing enough – a sentiment that was quite a common theme throughout the conference, particularly from Small Island Developing States), a package of agreements was pushed through (i.e. passed by the chair as a consensus despite Bolivia’s objection) in the early hours of the last morning, and were met with standing ovation.

The UNFCCC secretariat press release called it a “success”, stating “the beacon of hope has been reignited and faith in the multilateral climate change process to deliver results has been restored”. However, Ms Figueres also cautions:

“This is not the end, but it is a new beginning. It is not what is ultimately required but it is the essential foundation on which to build greater, collective ambition”.

A bigger understatement could not have been made. Yes there was an agreement, but it was basically only to agree to continue the process, or to create rules of “anything goes”. It is still quite far from an agreement that will do anything significant for the climate. At times the draft texts of the agreements were likened to Swiss cheese (a substance with deliberate holes in it), but I still can’t seem to shake the opinion that even now, after the “success” of Cancun, we have only just agreed to have a cow. And thus disgruntled I bussed off away from the plastic glamour of Cancun, past ancient Mayan temples (once the birthplace of agriculture, but now covered in grass and iguanas) and the aged, crumbling facades of past colonial eras, into the Yucatan sunset.