Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Global accord on climate change hailed as breakthrough

Global negotiators overcame deep suspicion and geopolitical rivalries to approve a breakthrough agreement early Saturday at the Cancun summit, a United Nations-backed deal that commits countries to increase their effort to battle climate change and preserves key principles of the Kytoto protocol.

The Cancun accord was hailed not only as a major step forward in fight against global warming, but a much-needed boost for multilateralism as 193 nations -- from the U.S and China, to Grenada and Lesotho -- put aside national differences and found common cause against a growing crisis.

"With this agreement, you have broken out of the inertia and feeling of hopelessness," Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the exhausted ministers and negotiators. "Confidence is back. Hope has returned."

Story continues below advertisement

In a surprise and dramatic move, Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa seized the initiative on Friday evening by tabling draft texts based on the work of a 50-country working group. The group had met over the previous few days, with fluid membership and an open-door policy to all delegations.

Ms. Espinosa was widely credited for her deft and transparent management of the intricate and often-heated negotiations. She avoided the mistake of last year's Copenhagen meeting -- where major countries crafted a deal behind closed doors that was later rejected by the convention as a whole -- while still managing to keep negotiations on track.

Bolivia harshly criticized the summit deal, complaining it strays too far from Kyoto's principles, does not go far enough in cutting emissions and relies too heavily on the marketplace to drive innovation and emission reductions.

But after heated debate, Ms. Espinosa declared at 4 a.m. ET that there was broad consensus on the deal and Bolivia was unable to block the Cancun agreement, as it and a handful of allies had prevented the Copenhagen accord from being adopted by the convention as a whole.

The Cancun agreement endorses the view that climate change is "one of the greatest challenges of our time" and requires long-term and co-operative action in order to prevent devastating impacts across the planet, including droughts, floods and rising sea levels. All countries have committed to boost their effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to have their plans reviewed by the international community.

Chief U.S. negotiator Todd Stern said the deal "while not perfect, is certainly a good basis for moving forward," adding it would "put the world on a more hopeful path toward a low-emissions and sustainable future."

Environmental groups hailed the package as a significant step towards a new international treaty that will including binding commitments from the United States, China and other major emitters of greenhouse gases.

Story continues below advertisement

"We are much further than we thought we would be before coming to Cancun," said Wendy Trio, climate policy director for Greenpeace.

Negotiators from 193 countries engaged in a multi-dimensional chess game throughout the two weeks of the Cancun meeting.

At a morning news conference, Environment Minister John Baird welcomed the agreement but described it as a "modest" step forward.

"It's a first step to a single, new, legally binding agreement," he said.

But the minister objected to the commitment for developed countries that are signatories of Kyoto to cut emissions by 25 to 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020.

And he refused to commit Canada to taking on new obigations under Kyoto, preferring the more flexible Copenhagen approach.

Story continues below advertisement

The negoatiators had to marry vastly different approaches that were contained in the 1997 Kyoto agreement and the 2009 Copenhagen accord, which resulted in non-binding emission pledges from countries like the U.S., China, India and Brazil , who were not covered by Kyoto commitments.

Under the deal, developed countries agreed to set up a "Green Climate Fund" that would manage most of the $100-billion (U.S.) per year promised to poor countries by 2020. It would be initially managed by the World Bank.

The deal also sets up technology-transfer programs to help poorer countries adopt renewable energy technologies, and finance projects to reduce deforestation and encourage tree planting.

Countries also committed to limiting the increase in the global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and pledged that they would consider strengthening the long-term goal to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees, something demanded by small islands states who fear the 2-degree target would leave their countries literally under water as a result of rising sea levels.

Under the agreement, countries will look to extend the Kyoto protocol with a new round of emission-reduction targets for the post-2012 period.

Japan and Russia had explicitly rejected such an approach unless major developing countries took on binding commitments, and Russia's objection was footnoted in the text. Canada had refused to provide a commitment to new Kyoto targets but never ruled it out.

Environment Minister John Baird said earlier Friday that the government had not "closed any doors" as negotiators sought to find compromises to keep the talks alive.

However, in the second period, the countries would be allowed to choose the base year against which their actions would be measured -- a key departure from the Kyoto 1990 standard and one that was particularly important for countries like Canada and Australia, who are well above their 2012 targets.

A spokesman for Mr. Baird said Friday night that Canadian officials were studying the agreement and did not comment on their content.

Zoe Caron, a climate-change researcher with WWF-Canada, said the tough decisions on Kyoto have been put off until next year, as Canadian negotiator Guy St. Jacques had earlier suggested they would be.

She said the Harper government may simply decide to transform its current 2020 target, made at last year's Copenhagen Accord, into any new Kyoto deal, though Canada would also face a penalty for missing its 2012 emissions goal.

However, it remains unclear how the ambitious emission targets will be achieved. In a report released at the beginning of the conference, the United Nations Environment Program said the commitments made under Copenhagen fell far short of what is needed to meet the 2-degree goal.

If all countries met the upper end of their promises and delivered all the funding to help poorer countries slow emissions growth, the world would emit 49-gigatonnes of greenhouse gases by 2020, five gigatonnes higher than required to meet the target, the agency said.

Following the lead of the United States, Canada has pledged to reduce its emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. Mr. Baird told the summit the Canadian government is working to meet that commitment, though it has yet to produce a plan to get there.

Ottawa has introduced new emission standards for automobiles and is moving on ships, airplanes and heavy trucks; it has also promised to pass regulations that will force the power sector to end its reliance on high-emitting coal over the next two decades. But it has not regulated the fastest growing source of emissions: Alberta's booming oil sands.

The United States had insisted the Cancun summit must recognize the political agreement reached in Copenhagen last year, including the emissions pledges.

Backed by Canada, the Americans also demanded that China, India, Brazil and other major developing countries agree to have their plans to reduce the rate of emissions growth monitored and verified by the international community. The developing countries have agreed to a review process, though one that is not as rigorous as the regime for developed countries.

Alden Meyer, of the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said the international deal could bolster President Barack Obama's plan to have the Environmental Protection Agency impose greenhouse gas emission regulations on industry, a policy Canada has vowed to follow.

While a UN agreement clearly won't deter Republicans from attacking Mr. Obama's climate policy, a failure in Cancun would have provided fresh ammunition to critics to argue that U.S. competitors were uncommitted to tackling the issue, he said.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Global Energy Reporter

Shawn McCarthy is an Ottawa-based, national business correspondent for The Globe and Mail, covering a global energy beat. He writes on various aspects of the international energy industry, from oil and gas production and refining, to the development of new technologies, to the business implications of climate-change regulations. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.