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Why Cancun trumped Copenhagen: Warmer relations on rising temperatures

The climate change talks in Cancun, Mexico, didn’t solve all the world’s climate problems. But they were hugely successful. Through the Cancun Agreements, 194 countries reached landmark consensus (even the US and China) to set emissions targets and limit global temperature increases.

By Robert N. Stavins / December 20, 2010



Boston

After the modest results of the climate change talks in Copenhagen a year ago, expectations were low for the follow-up negotiations in Cancun this month. Gloom-and-doom predictions dominated.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to that much-anticipated failure: During two intense weeks of discussions in the Mexican resort that wrapped up at 3 AM on Dec. 12, the world’s governments quietly achieved consensus on a set of substantive steps forward. And equally important, the participants showed encouraging signs of learning to navigate through the unproductive squabbling between developed and developing countries that derailed the Copenhagen talks.

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Unprecedented first steps

The tangible advances were noteworthy: The Cancun Agreements set emissions mitigation targets for some 80 countries, including all the major economies. That means that the world’s largest emitters, among them China, the United States, the European Union, India, and Brazil, have now signed up for targets and actions to reduce emissions by 2020.

The participating countries also agreed – for the first time in an official United Nations accord – to keep temperature increases below a global average of 2 degrees Celsius. Yes, that goal is no more stringent than the one set out in Copenhagen, but this time, the participating nations formally accepted the goals; a year earlier, they merely “noted” them, without adopting the accord.

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Other provisions establish a “Green Climate Fund” to finance steps to limit and adapt to climate change, and designate the World Bank as interim trustee, over the objections of many developing countries. And new initiatives will protect tropical forests, and find ways to transfer clean energy technology to poorer countries.

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