In fact, they even managed to lower the bar on key issues.

With the exception of one stubborn nation that insisted to the end on an agreement that would meet minimum scientific standards for reverting global warming, world leaders agreed to: dodge binding emissions controls, promise funds with no sources attached, leave untouched the intellectual property regime that restricts the flow of green technology, and expands market-based mechanisms that are correlated to a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Many organizations are saying the result gives us hope. They note that small island countries and drought-ridden African nations accepted the agreement, in return for needed funds. They point out that we can now at least proceed on to the COP 17 in Durban.

Saving the multilateral process was important—it’s all we have to make decisions that affect our planet and all the species that live on it. It was important that the talks didn’t break down altogether, as they did in Copenhagen. But the agreement contains voluntary measures and leaves countries free to establish their own targets and plans to reduce emissions. In essence, it’s a multilateral agreement to not agree.

The salvation of the multilateral process, and particularly the Kyoto Protocol, heralded in Cancun is a dubious claim at best. As Martin Khor of the Third World Network notes, “The Cancun meeting in fact made it more likely for the developed countries to shift from the Kyoto Protocol and its binding regime of emission reduction commitments, to a voluntary system in which each country only makes pledges on how much it will reduce its emissions.”

This outcome means that developed countries responsible for climate change are let off the hook. Some features, such as possibly allowing trade in “surplus allowances” for the 2008-2012 period could completely cancel out their emissions reductions targets. Under this plan, a developing country that emits below its allowed level for this period could sell credits to developed countries to keep up current levels of emissions, beyond the period for which the allowance was determined.

Major offset mechanisms through forestry and land-use management, such as the Reduction of Emissions for Deforestation and Forest Degradation proposal (REDD) and the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) included in the agreement, also undermine emissions reduction pledges by expanding the market for purchasing the ability to pollute above safe levels.

No wonder Todd Stern, U.S. representative to the talks, expressed his pleasure at the agreement, saying, “This result was fundamentally consistent with U.S. objectives.” The U.S. came in with a clear agenda to block any mandatory emissions controls. Responsibilities of historical polluters to pay up on the “climate debt” were successfully relegated to unspecified funds, which will likely include private market offset mechanisms and also could be offered as loans rather than grants. U.S. objectives were amply achieved in Cancun, placing the entire planet in serious jeopardy.

Another big winner in the Cancun agreement are the carbon market speculators. In the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) press release their role is prominently noted in the paragraph on obligations for developed countries: “Industrialized country targets are officially recognized under the multilateral process and these countries are to develop low-carbon development plans and strategies and assess how best to meet them, including through market mechanisms, and to report their inventories annually.”

The agreement also strengthens the Clean Development Mechanisms that, rather than regulating polluters and mandating clean-ups, reward historical polluters for adapting limited remedial measures exclusively in the area of greenhouse gas emissions.

By using the markets to finance emissions control evasion, world leaders have done a great disservice to humankind and presented an incalculable gift to speculators and polluters. Governments are abdicating their fundamental regulation and enforcement roles at a time of crisis.

Where does all this leave the planet?

An evaluation by the Climate Change Tracker points out that “none of the decisions [in Cancun] were concrete enough to lead to quantifiable changes.”

Climate Change Tracker calculates a 3.2 degree temperature rise if the agreement, which is voluntary, is complied with, others state we are on track for a 4-5 degree change. That is well over the 1.5-2 degree goal in the agreement itself and scientists warn that it will lead to a situation that condemns numerous species and human communities and livelihoods to extinction.

From the point of view of the species doomed to extinction by the temperature rise that this agreement implicitly condones, Cancun is bad news indeed. Humankind is the life form responsible for this threat and the only one capable of stopping it. Nature and the voiceless species suffer from the injustice of inaction. Poor people, too-often voiceless in their societies, also suffer disproportionately. For this reason, they were the largest group to protest the climate change talks.

Bolivia, the lone dissenter in what was supposed to be a consensus decision, issued a statement saying, “The Plurinational State of Bolivia believes that the Cancun text is a hollow and false victory that was imposed without consensus, and its cost will be measured in human lives. History will judge harshly.” Bolivia climate negotiator Pablo Solon announced that the country will take the agreement to court at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Mexican Secretary of Foreign Relations Patricia Espinosa closed the session at 3:30 A.M. interpreting the rule that agreements be reached in harmony by stating, “harmony does not mean unanimity”. Solon claimed the decision was an “abuse of the framework agreement on climate protection.”

With clouds on the multilateral horizon, vague promises and a planet at risk, the Cancun agreement sets the stage for a Durban agreement that–at this rate–will set the stage for a somewhere-else agreement. Meanwhile, urgent measures that will cost private-sector polluters are off the table and the climate debt accumulates as the temperature rises. Low expectations are no longer acceptable.

Laura Carlsen is director of the CIP Americas Program at

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