How Are the Cancun Agreements Different than the Copenhagen Accord: Q&A

Following from the Cancun climate negotiation session you might be asking: “how is this agreement different than the one agreed in Copenhagen just one year before”.  Besides the quick answer—length of pages—there are some important differences in terms of substance and process.  Each of these gives the Cancun agreements more life than the Copenhagen Accord and creates a foundation from which to build greater international action on global warming.   Here I’ll try to pose some of the big picture questions that I’m receiving and some answers (this should be read alongside my detailed blog on the outcomes).

Overall, how are the Cancun Agreements different than the Copenhagen Accord?

There are several important reasons why this is different than the Copenhagen Accord.  First, the Cancun Agreements* were actually formally adopted by UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.  Countries decided to adopt these agreements which mean that countries collectively agree to implement them.  They can now be turned into working procedures, rules, and institutions.  The status of the Copenhagen Accord was unclear because the countries were only able to ‘take note of’ the Accord.  As a result, it was hard to translate the broad outlines of the Accord into workable actions.  This time the formal adoption of the Cancun Agreements allow countries to use the agreements as an agreed basis for further action.

Second, the Cancun Agreements are much more detailed, give clearer guidance to how the key provisions are to be implemented, and establish a distinct path for implementing the key provisions immediately.  While the Copenhagen Accord contained some important political decisions, it didn’t provide the necessary details to be implemented.  Remember the Copenhagen Accord was only 3 pages and the total Cancun Agreements are a “power packed” 32 pages.  To use an analogy: if the Copenhagen Accord is an agreement to build a 10 story building (instead of a single story building), then the Cancun Agreements are the detailed blueprints for that building and signed contracts with the builders to start pouring the concrete and building the walls according to certain specifications.  Following from Cancun the contractors have a clear mandate to build the walls and roof, install the windows, etc.  Countries can both begin to implement their actions according to these agreements and christen the new efforts outlined in the Cancun agreements at the next international meeting in Durban, South Africa.

Lastly, there was a renewed spirit of working together reflected in the final hours of Cancun as country after country stood up and said: “let’s agree to this decision, begin implementing, and strengthen over time”.   This new spirit is important as countries will have to emerge from Cancun with a clear vision to stop arguing and start implementing.

Didn’t countries already commit in Copenhagen to reduce their emissions and to be more transparent about their emissions and actions? So what is different about how these are reflected in the Cancun Agreements?

Countries accounting for over 80% of the world’s global warming pollution committed in Copenhagen and after to implement specific steps to reduce their emissions.  These commitments were more formally recognized (“anchored”) in the Cancun Agreements.  In essence, these countries reaffirmed  that they will implement laws, policies, etc to achieve these commitments.  This is critical because the uncertain status of the Copenhagen Accord left some in the international community wondering what commitments associated with Copenhagen meant.  The firming up of the commitments in Cancun deepens the commitment to meet the pledges.  This is important as countries don’t want to formally make commitments and then not meet them (they’ll lose credibility in the eyes of other countries and this will make it difficult to work together on other key international issues as each side will be wary that the other won’t deliver).  In addition, some countries have also been taking specific steps at home to turn their commitments into action.  After all, what we ultimately need from the international agreement is action, action, action – not promises.  So these aren’t just vague promises that they’ll do something but commitments that they are actually prepared to implement.

The agreements reached in Copenhagen also detail a system to regularly track whether or not countries are making progress towards their commitments.  While this was important, the Cancun Agreements took those concepts and will make them operational (the details are available here and here).  This is important as it will provide the necessary data, information, reporting, and scrutiny to keep a spotlight on whether countries are making the necessary progress towards their commitments.  The agreement will allow all countries and the world’s citizens to have the needed information to hold countries accountable for their progress.  So if a country says that they are meeting their commitments, we’ll now be able to say definitively: “I agree or I disagree”.  This spotlight will help focus pressure on countries to deliver on their commitments.   

In Copenhagen, countries committed to help developing countries reduce deforestation emissions, deploy clean energy, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.  So what did Cancun deliver on these that was different?

The short answer is Cancun provided details which can now guide the actual implementation of each of these key pieces (in total each of these provisions was only 3 sentences in the Copenhagen Accord).  We can now turn these agreements into practical measures that begin to help developing countries reduce deforestation emissions, deploy clean energy, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.  So countries have now agreed to begin the hard work of implementing these measures on the ground.  And they’ve agreed to do it together so their individual actions will be working in tandem with other countries which will multiply the impact on-the-ground.

In addition, in Cancun countries agreed to develop an operational “Green Climate Fund” which would help deploy needed resources to help developing countries reduce emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.  When fully open for business this fund will help mobilize significant resources to aid these countries in addressing these challenges.

But won’t countries just argue again about how to implement the “fine print” of the Cancun Agreement?

Addressing global warming requires that all the key countries are moving in the same direction.  And they must do this largely because they want to, not because they are forced to.  The new spirit arising from Cancun gives me hope that we will spend less time arguing and more time agreeing on how to implement real action.  Following from Copenhagen there wasn’t that same spirit, in fact there was a huge “trust deficit”.  Countries will inevitably disagree on some of the details, but the spirit from Cancun shows that they can sit at the same table work out the differences in a way that makes everyone reasonably happy.  And in this way they’ll be able to move these pieces much faster towards implementation so that they help address global warming.   


These are just the big picture differences, but there are important details in each of these agreements which will significantly improve international action on global warming.

The Cancun Agreements chart a clear path to begin to implement real action.  By implementing the provisions in this agreement, countries will make a real difference on the ground.  You’ll see reduced emissions and forest loss, increased accountability and transparency to ensure that countries are moving in the right direction, and greater mobilization of resources to assist developing countries.  And hopefully this will be done in a spirit which means that this agreement is a floor and not a ceiling to the kind of action that countries take.  After all, once countries begin to implement these actions I’m convinced that they’ll deepen them over time as they see tangibly the benefits to their citizens.

There is more to this agreement than the one reached last year.  And that should make a huge difference on-the-ground. 


*The Cancun Agreements: the “Outcome of the AWG-LCA” and the “Outcome of the AWG-KP”).

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