After a year of anticipation and two weeks of frenzied negotiations, last December's Copenhagen climate summit ended in frustration and acrimony. It's no surprise, then, that as negotiators descend on Cancun today for the next round of U.N. talks, many have concluded that the negotiations no longer matter. The headlines say it all: "Cancun Climate Talks Get Dim Prognosis for Success" (Bloomberg); "Expectations for Climate Change Conference Limited" (Voice of America); "Cancun Climate Negotiations Headed Nowhere" (Indian Express, quoting the top Indian climate negotiator). Policymakers are even more pessimistic in private than they have been in public.
Reporters, opinionators, and analysts are right to have limited hopes for Cancun but dangerously wrong if they think the meeting is unimportant. Last year's talks produced the "Copenhagen Accord," a political agreement that was roundly savaged. Yet the accord is more valuable and important than most assumeóand its future is at risk in Cancun. If negotiators let it die, as many privately wish, they will not get something closer to their ideal; they will get nothing.
The Copenhagen Accord did three important things. It established a series of global benchmarks against which countries' efforts to confront climate change could be judged. These include the goal of preventing global temperatures from increasing to more than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, and a goal of raising "up to $100 billion" by 2020 to help developing countries address climate change. It required all but the poorest countries to present national plans for curbing emissions; more than 100, including China and India, have followed through. And it committed countries to transparency, so that other nations could assess whether they were making progress.