CANCÚN, Mexico — The United Nations climate change conference began with modest aims and ended early Saturday with modest achievements. But while the measures adopted here may have scant near-term impact on the warming of the planet, the international process for dealing with the issue got a significant vote of confidence.
The agreement fell well short of the broad changes scientists say are needed to avoid dangerous climate change in coming decades. But it lays the groundwork for stronger measures in the future, if nations are able to overcome the emotional arguments that have crippled climate change negotiations in recent years.
The package known as the Cancún Agreements gives the more than 190 countries participating in the conference another year to decide whether to extend the frayed Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that requires most wealthy nations to trim their emissions while providing assistance to developing countries to pursue a cleaner energy future.
The agreement is not a legally binding treaty, but the success of these talks allows the process to seek a more robust accord at next year’s climate conference in Durban, South Africa.
“This is not the end, but it is a new beginning,” said Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who serves as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “It is not what is ultimately required, but it is the essential foundation on which to build greater, collective ambition.”
The agreement sets up a new fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes, creates new mechanisms for transfer of clean energy technology, provides compensation for the preservation of tropical forests and strengthens the emissions reductions pledges that came out of the last United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen last year.
The conference approved the package over the objections of Bolivia, which condemned the pact as too weak. Bolivia’s chief climate negotiator, Pablo Solón, said that the emissions reductions laid out in the plan would allow global temperatures to rise as much as 4 degrees Celsius over the next half century, twice the stated goal of the agreement and a level that would doom millions in the poorest and most vulnerable nations.
But his protests did not block acceptance of the package. Delegates from island states and the least-developed countries warmly welcomed the pact because it would start the flow of billions of dollars to assist them to adopt cleaner energy systems and adapt to inevitable changes in the climate, like sea rise and drought.
But it left unresolved where the $100 billion in annual climate-related aid that the wealthy nations have promised to provide would come from.
Todd Stern, the American climate envoy, said the package achieved much of what he had hoped, including a more solid commitment by all nations to take steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and a more formalized international program of reporting and verification of reductions. It adds needed specifics to the fuzzy promises of last year’s Copenhagen Accord, he said.
“This is a significant step forward that builds on the progress made in Copenhagen,” he said in a news conference after the package was adopted. “It successfully anchors mitigation pledges of the Copenhagen Accord and builds on the transparency element of the accord with substantial detail and content.”
Mr. Stern had been particularly insistent that the agreement include a consistent formula for countries to disclose their emissions, report on the measures they are taking to reduce them and provide detailed statements of economic assumptions and methodology. Although a number of large developing nations like China, Brazil and South Africa balked at the intrusiveness of the system, Mr. Stern helped devise a compromise they could live with.
Yvo de Boer, who stepped down this year after four years as executive secretary of the United Nations climate office, said that the success of this year’s conference was in large measure attributable to the modesty of its goals.
“This process has never been characterized by leaps and bounds,” he said in an interview. “It has been characterized by small steps. And I’d rather see this small step here in Cancún than the international community tripping over itself in an effort to make a large leap.”
In all, the success of the Cancún talks was a shot in the arm for a process that some had likened to a zombie, stumbling aimlessly but refusing to die.
“None of this, of course, is world changing,” said Michael A. Levi, who follows climate issues at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “The Cancún agreement should be applauded not because it solves everything, but because it chooses not to: it focuses on those areas where the U.N. process has the most potential to be useful, and avoids other areas where the U.N. process is a dead end. The outcome does not change the fact that most of the important work of cutting emissions will be driven outside the U.N. process.”