Just before the Mexican dawn on Saturday, the UN got its mojo back in guiding global action on pollution and climate change. While more needs to be done, particularly at the national level, the Cancun Climate Summit concluded with Copenhagen’s political pollution reduction commitments formally recognised under the UN Convention and critical financing and accountability mechanisms agreed. The percentage of global pollution subject to formal commitments under the UN zoomed from Kyoto’s 27% to Cancun’s 80%.

At 3pm on Friday the meeting hung in the balance. The new text to capture discussions over the previous two weeks had been due for release at 8am. A silent hush and tension had fallen over the conference as the Mexican presidency worked behind the scenes with senior negotiators to finalise an agreement that could be the basis of a decision in Cancun. At three the text was released and at 6pm the chair of the meeting, Mexican foreign minister Patricia Espinosa, entered the plenary hall and was greeted by thunderous applause and a three-minute standing ovation.

This moment defined the outcome in Cancun. Similar scenes continued through the night and the applause from the room gave Espinosa a mandate to stare down Bolivia, the only country to not support the agreement. At 3am the Mexican chair drove home the Cancun Climate Agreements by bluntly saying she could not allow one nation to stand in the way and veto the wishes of 192 others.

While some aspects of the commitments require further work, the Cancun summit delivered important progress in several key areas. Significantly, the Cancun talks produced formal UN decision anchoring pollution limitation and reduction targets covering more than 80% of global emissions. Collectively, these targets are not strong enough but now the world has a formal negotiating basis to strengthen them over time.

This is the first time we’ve seen the US, China and all other major emitters collectively anchor their national pollution targets in a formal UN agreement.

While not a treaty, a decision under the Climate Convention does carry legal weight even if in the strictest terms it is not legally binding. This is why countries spend millions of dollars sending delegates to UN meetings and take two exhausting weeks negotiating detailed texts line by line. (See The Climate Institute’s briefing on the different implications of alternative legal forms of international agreements.)

A few concrete examples of how seriously countries take decisions under the UN can be seen in the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. The rules that define the operation of the multibillion dollar international market and accounting frameworks used by countries are defined by decisions. This illustrates that decisions are taken very seriously by countries, and governments generally work to implement these commitments.

While the UN climate talks have got their mojo back, ultimately the UN won’t reduce global emissions. This is the role of national governments. International agreements give countries the confidence to go further than they will do by themselves as they feel others are moving with them.

Unlike the 1997 Kyoto summit, where environment ministers agreed an environment treaty, the modern geopolitics of climate change are dominated by economics and trade considerations. This is part why achieving consensus through UN processes is difficult.

In Cancun, it was clear that global momentum will continue to be built through actions at the national and subnational level. Important new initiatives announced in Cancun included Norway and Indonesia’s US$1 billion deal to protect tropical forests, beginning with a two-year ban on new permits to clear forests. South Africa also demonstrated progress at the national level with a draft policy to introduce a national carbon tax to complement their existing pollution price for vehicles.

While Cancun will build confidence, in the short-term, governments’ competitive instincts  continue to dominate and drive multibillion-dollar investments in clean energy and low pollution technologies as they jostle for poll position in the global clean-energy race.

Countries — in particular China and the EU — are driving multibillion-dollar investments in clean energy and low-pollution technologies in order to dominate the global clean energy economy. The UK and China already have direct and indirect pollution prices higher than Australia. China saw over $US35 billion dollars in clean energy last year and dominated the global market. The UK, with a population only about three times the size of Australia, saw $US11 billion invested, while Australia attracted less than $US1 billion.

This is why the implementation of a limit and price on pollution remains central to Australia’s economic prosperity and national interest.

Without a domestic pollution limit and price Australia will not be in a position to fulfill the commitments made in Cancun. Without a domestic pollution price Australia will continues to be out-competed by countries dominating the emerging low pollution economy.

*Erwin Jackson is  deputy CEO of The Climate Institute from Cancun, Mexico.