UN Climate Conference (COP 16) Wrap up and What to Watch in 2011

by | Dec 20, 2010

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This year’s Sixteenth Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) took place between November 29 and December 10 this year in Cancun, Mexico.

The UNFCCC is an international environmental treaty that was adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Its goal is to stabilize greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere and thereby mitigate the damage associated with climate change.

The most significant outcome to date has been the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding GHG reduction targets for the industrialized countries that are viewed as bearing primary responsibility for the current high levels of GHG emissions in the atmosphere.

The US signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, so is not bound by its terms. Canada did sign and ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but its emissions are significantly above its reduction target and the current federal government has indicated that it will be unable to meet the target.

The first deadline for industrialized countries to fulfill their GHG emission reduction obligations under the Kyoto Protocol is the end of 2012. As a result, a significant focus of the negotiations in Copenhagen last year and in Cancun this year has been on what will replace it: an entirely new agreement that includes reduction targets for all the big emitters – including developing nations such as China and India – which is the preference of the US and Canada; or an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which in general is preferred by developing economies. Japan made waves on the first day of COP 16 by announcing it would not support extending the Kyoto Protocol.

In addition, this year’s conference was focused on fleshing out the terms of the Copenhagen Accord, which was the outcome of last year’s COP. The Accord is not legally binding, but for the first time includes voluntary reduction pledges from heavy emitting developed and developing countries (the US and Canada submitted the identical goal of a 17% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020). It also included provisions for the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of the voluntary actions agreed to by developing countries; and a fund of $100 billion for mitigation and adaptation efforts in the most vulnerable developing nations.

The Issues

While the issues discussed were complex and varied, it was evident that the negotiators for the US were focused on developing a “package” that included two core elements: symmetry, in that both developed and developing countries would be subject to emission reduction targets; and transparency with respect to commitments and actions, specifically MRV.

MRV is in essence a system to verify emission claims, and was one of the most contentious issues at this year’s negotiations. Resolving it was seen as key to making progress on other unresolved issues, such as financing and capacity building.

From a US perspective, having a consistent process for disclosing emissions and verifying actions and reductions was seen as essential – especially if mitigation efforts were tied to financial support from developed countries.

For other countries, such as China, Brazil and South Africa, MRV was seen as a “Trojan horse,” potentially intruding on their national sovereignty. In addition, the definition of MRV varied: for some, it meant in-country reviews; for countries like the US, it involved an independent expert review process and a tangible outcome, such as a report on the findings.

It was also evident that the US came to Cancun with the objective of implementing the deal brokered in Copenhagen. This approach was seen as a departure from the existing two track negotiation process, involving:

–The UNFCCC’s Kyoto Protocol (KP) track, which focuses on negotiating national targets for a possible post-2012 emission reduction target for industrialized countries – to extend the Kyoto Protocol; and,

–The LCA track, which is the UNFCCC’s negotiation track for Long-term Cooperative Action i.e., an as-yet-undefined international agreement for the future.

In fact, a departure from the two track system was in direct conflict with the position of the developing economies, in particular China and India.

It was acknowledged that it was difficult to imagine how the international community would “turn off” the Kyoto Protocol without a successor in 2012. However, it was also not made clear how the US could be incorporated into an extension of the existing treaty, given they did not ratify it.

The Outcome: the Cancun Agreements

The word most frequently associated with the Cancun Agreements seems to be “modest”. The Cancun Agreements enshrine the commitments of the Copenhagen Accord in a UN decision. They also set the stage for the next year’s climate conference in Durban, South Africa, where the unresolved issues – including the future of the Kyoto Protocol and a binding agreement – will once again be on the table.

The key elements of the Cancun Agreements are as follows:

–Countries agree to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and developed countries are urged to make more aggressive emission cut pledges.

–A $30 billion package (“fast-start financing”) for 2012 to aid nations taking immediate action to adapt to global warming.

–The creation of a “Global Climate Fund” that will provide financing of $100 million annually for longer-term adaptation and mitigation measures in developing countries (although where this aid will come from is still unresolved). The World Bank was designated as its interim trustee.

–The creation of the forestry program, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), which provides compensation for the preservation of tropical forests in developing countries.

–Specific language and a formal system for monitoring and reporting emissions. This includes a process of “international consultations and analysis” for developing countries that is “non-intrusive, non-punitive, and respectful of national sovereignty”, incorporating analysis by technical experts and resulting in a summary report.

The Process

There was considerable informal discussion among conference attendees about whether the existing process is appropriate for tackling a problem as complex and far-reaching as climate change. Forums like the G20 or the Major Economies Forum (MEF) were discussed as alternative processes for effecting fundamental change. However, following the Cancun Agreements, there appears to be renewed commitment to moving ahead with the existing UNFCCC process. What will be interesting to watch is whether the multilateral process will remain unchanged, or whether it will be complemented by parallel negotiations and discussions.

Other Developments to Watch

–US context

There was widespread acknowledgement at the conference that climate legislation is unlikely to be taken up or enacted in the next Congress. Instead, all eyes are focused on the regulatory levers in the hands of the US EPA. In addition to establishing vehicle emission standards, EPA is poised to commence its mandatory GHG reporting program and its tailoring rule in 2011. The remaining questions are:

–What additional rules can we expect from EPA?

–Will EPA’s rules survive legal challenges?

–Will Congress take steps to limit EPA’s authority to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act?

–How will President Obama respond should Congress act to curtail EPA’s authority and/or delay EPA’s regulations?

Members of Congress have indicated that they will be convening hearings in the new year to delve into the science around climate change. At COP 16 there were several events devoted to communicating the science associated with climate change. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke extensively about scientific studies on the ratios of two different kinds of atmospheric carbon dioxide which, he asserted, indicate that human activities, not natural processes, are responsible for rising global temperatures. In addition, a representative from the White House suggested that they will be speaking with scientific bodies in the coming year about how to more effectively communicate and make the case for action on climate change to the general public.

The Regional Initiatives

In the absence of a binding international treaty and federal legislation out of the US and Canada, attention at COP 16 turned to sub-national leadership and initiatives. There was increasing speculation that regional markets will emerge, and that the focus will shift to harmonization between countries and schemes.

There was significant discussion about the three regional programs in North America: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), and the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord (MMGRA). Representatives from the regional initiatives confirmed that they are talking about how to link their programs, in particular focusing on determining common principles for offsets and on the allocation process so that all compliance instruments are fungible between programs.

Representatives from the regional initiatives also discussed collaboration among states and provinces on other non-cap and trade policies and initiatives, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, low carbon fuels, transportation and land use.


Based on a number of presentations by California during COP 16, it would appear that the gubernatorial election and the defeat of Proposition 23 – which would have delayed the implementation of AB32, California’s global warming bill – seem to have reinforced the state’s position on climate policy.

California’s representatives stated that they were preparing for cap and trade to commence in the state in 2012, citing their involvement in the Western Climate Initiative as the broader context for establishing a carbon market. On December 16th, 2010, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) held its public hearing on whether to adopt its cap and trade regulation. The result of this will send a strong signal to the other WCI partners who have indicated an intention to commence cap and trade in 2012, including the provinces of BC, Ontario, and Quebec.

Alex Carr is the Communications Director for The Climate Registry, the only voluntary GHG registry in North America supported by states, provinces, territories and tribes. As an UN-accredited NGO, The Registry hosted a delegation of states, businesses, NGOs and academia at COP 16. It helps over 430 organizations measure, manage and reduce their carbon emissions with integrity.

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