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11 December 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:06am

Breakthrough in Cancún

Defying the odds, the world reaches agreement on climate change.

By Sophie Elmhirst

In the past two weeks, the WikiLeaks revelations, tuition fees vote and student protests have taken over the news agenda. The UN climate change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico, have almost slipped beneath the radar. This time last year, the summit in Copenhagen was ending in frustration and disarray, with no binding agreement made or progress to speak of. The world watched in despair as ministers and advisers blamed each other for the breakdown in talks.

Perhaps the lack of media attention was exactly what was needed in order to make significant progress in the negotiations. Under the stewardship of the Mexican hosts, compromise documents were drawn up and, overcoming objections from Bolivia, endorsed by the nations present, including the United States and China (both of which have ritually blocked progress in negotiations previously).

When Todd Stern, the US envoy, voiced his support for the document (“Let us do what it takes to get this deal done and put the world on a path to a low emission and more sustainable pathway”) cheers apparently rang out around the hall.

The deal, which still does not bind countries legally to cut emissions, will be insufficient for many campaigners. But most seem to agree that it represents a positive first step on the way to achieving that aim. WWF, for example, issued a statement tentatively acknowledging the “renewed sense of goodwill and some sense of purpose”. The pressure is now on to legally define the deal at next year’s summit in Durban, South Africa.

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The summit’s main success was the agreement to establish a Green Climate Fund, which will raise and distribute $100bn (£64bn) a year by 2020 to protect poor nations against the impacts of climate change and help them develop a low-carbon economy.

Taking much of the credit for the deal is the Mexican foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, who was described as a “goddess” by the Indian environment minister, Jairem Ramesh. “You have restored the confidence of the world community in multilateralism and in the multilateral process,” he said.