Key steps on global warming on which agreement is needed in Mexico later this year

Greenhouse gas emissions by country
including land-use change
This December, 194 countries will be in Cancun, Mexico to continue negotiations on international efforts to address climate change. My colleagues and I are in Mexico City this week for a series of discussions with key government officials, NGOs, businesses, and members of the media so we’ve been reflecting on Cancun. The Cancun climate negotiation session (COP16) must serve three critical functions to ensure the continued progress on international climate change efforts and to rebuild some of the trust lost during and after Copenhagen.

First, at Cancun, the international community needs to prove to countries and the world public that it can work together to address climate change. It is essential that countries make some progress in Cancun and show that the international system can work. This is paramount, as a perceived failure will make it even more difficult to build political momentum within the UN system and may lead the public and countries to disengage.

Second, Cancun needs to produce agreement on aspects of the key implementing activities to be delivered by the international agreement –e.g., clean energy technology deployment, deforestation reductions, improving the resilience of countries to the impacts of climate change, etc. While it is unlikely that every aspect of these issues will be resolved in Cancun, it is possible to make significant progress on each of these issues at Cancun. The notion of “nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed” must be set aside in favor of re-establishing confidence by progressively building the agreement component by component.

Third, COP16 needs to produce momentum and enough progress that COP17 (in South Africa) and the Rio 2012 Earth Summit can finalize additional commitments and implementation steps.

So what are a couple of tangible steps that countries can agree in Cancun to achieve these three aims?

1. Commitments for “Actions” and “Support”. The meeting in Cancun needs to create the expectation that this and future meetings will focus strong political and public attention on what actions countries are taking to reduce their emissions and on what support they are offering to help deploy clean energy, reduce deforestation emissions, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Action, Action, Action. Countries accounting for over 80% of the world’s emissions have now committed to specific actions that undertake at home to reduce their global warming pollution. Much of the political posturing, focus of the general public and the media, and dynamics of the international negotiations is focused on what “the agreement” (or the negotiating text) has to say. Much less attention is focused on what actions countries commit to take, what concrete steps they are taking at home to reduce their emissions, and how they could be assisted in the move to a low carbon economy. The meeting in Cancun needs to reaffirm the expectation that countries are to implement specific actions at home and report those efforts with the international community at every subsequent meeting. Over time this reporting should become more formal, but countries should be expected to informally report on their actions at Cancun. Countries should have to say: “we have done nothing” or “we have taken such and such step, but need to go further”. It is critical that we immediately create the expectation that the world is paying attention to the actions of countries, not just their words.

Focus on “Prompt Start Funding”. In Copenhagen, developed countries committed to provide $30 billion in financing from 2010-2012 to aid developing countries in deploying clean energy, reducing deforestation emissions, and adapting to the impacts of climate change. To build trust it is critical that developed countries show in tangible ways how their pledges to “prompt start” funding are turning into real money. But it is also important to focus on tangible actions that are occurring on-the-ground with the money. This dual focus will establish the expectations both that real money is generated and that tangible actions are being delivered with the money. The recent Dutch initiative to create a website where countries report on their contribution is a good step in this direction, as is the REDD+ Partnership’s efforts to create a database where deforestation efforts are transparently reported.

2. Decisions to Show Progress on Key Issues. It is important that countries agree in Cancun to make tangible progress by reaching agreement on some of the key aspects of the international response to climate change. Without some tangible outcomes, countries, the general public, and key policymakers will disengage from the international negotiations. These include the following (as I discussed here).

MRV and Finance are Linchpins. Resolving some aspects of monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) and finance are critical to a successful outcome in Cancun. Without forward progress on developing country MRV, developed countries are unlikely to agree to let other issues move forward–such as REDD, adaptation, and technology. At the same time, without progress on finance, developing countries are unlikely to allow progress on MRV. These two issues are intertwined in the negotiations.

Critical Implementing Actions Can be Agreed – Making progress on REDD, Technology, and Adaptation. In Copenhagen, countries were very close to agreeing on elements of the international approach to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), clean energy deployment, and adaptation. While there are aspects of these that are still controversial, it is possible to agree in Cancun on key elements that enable tangible action to materialize on these three critical issues. Progress on these fronts is essential to prove to countries and the general public that the UNFCCC can move forward on tangible actions which make a real difference in the efforts to address global warming.


Countries will come to Tianjin, China next month for the next climate negotiations. At this meeting, countries will have a choice: do they want to see progress in Cancun that moves the world forward or do they want to throw up roadblocks to progress.

Officials in Mexico seemed cautiously optimistic, but they clearly see the uncertain path to Cancun. The Mexican team is extremely capable as it combines Ministries and individuals with strong diplomatic skills and extensive knowledge of the key issues. That gives me hope that they can help move the 194 countries towards some specific outcomes which move the world forward. I’m leaving Mexico with the same cautious optimism that we sensed from the Mexican officials.


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Jake Schmidt is the International Climate Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council where he helps to develop the post-2012 international response to climate change (for more information see his blog).

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