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UN climate conference opens in Cancun

Date
29 November 2010
UN climate conference opens in Cancun

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager at The Climate Group, writes on the decisive factors that are key to moving the talks forward and on how to avoid a repeat of last year's disappointing summit in Copenhagen.

The annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP16) begins in Cancun, Mexico today. Expectations for the two week summit are modest at best, but progressive decisions and forward momentum are still possible with the right negotiating atmosphere.

In contrast to the hype that characterized the build up to last year’s disappointing summit in Copenhagen, the road to Cancun has taken place against a far more subdued backdrop. This has been shaped by shifts in political power and opinion (both domestically and internationally), controversies over the climate science, and a fragile global economy. These developments have helped dampen down expectations for international climate action throughout the year and in particular, for the meeting in Cancun.

As a result of these developments, there is now broad acceptance that Cancun will not deliver a final global climate deal, as many had hoped in the immediate aftermath of Copenhagen. Instead, negotiators and observers alike speak of the need for a ‘balanced package’ of decisions. The idea is that these decisions would lay the basis for a final agreement at next year’s conference in South Africa (or indeed possibly later.)

Such a package would include decisions on all the major building blocks of a global deal. These core blocks include:

  • emission reduction efforts;
  • the monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of climate actions;
  • adaptation to climate impacts;
  • technology transfer;
  • reductions in deforestation (aka ‘REDD+’);
  • and climate finance.

Achieving balance will depend on ‘providing something on everything and something for everyone’, as one seasoned negotiator has described it.

It will be crucial that these decisions deliver both substance and momentum, even if incremental, in order to ensure that countries maintain faith in, and support for, the UN process. Failure to demonstrate that the process can produce tangible and credible results in Cancun would be a major blow for the UN climate system. While countries are very unlikely to abandon the process, its relevance and effectiveness would almost certainly be undermined by a poor result in Cancun.

Avoiding such an outcome will depend on a variety of factors. The extent to which the US and China can find common ground over the two weeks is perhaps the most crucial. Without any domestic climate and energy legislation yet in balance, the US remains hamstrung as to what it can place on the negotiating table. The challenge for negotiators will be to find a path forward that addresses enough of the key concerns of not only the US and China, but other major economies and key negotiating blocs, such as the small island states and least developed countries.

Much will depend on progress made by officials in the first week. If an atmosphere of trust and confidence can be built, with good progress made on some of the ‘easy-win’ issues, such as REDD+, adaptation and technology, then ministers will stand a good chance of reaching sound and substantive decisions in the second week. If disputes over process, re-litigation of old issues or a mood of distrust prevail, then a repeat of Copenhagen is almost certain. Such an outcome would be a collective failure.

In short, the prognosis for Cancun remains uncertain at this point as the negotiations begin. On the one hand old divisions and a lack of trust could well torpedo the talks. On the other, low expectations and realization amongst parties that the process needs to deliver, could well provide the kind of fertile ground for making progress that was so lacking in Copenhagen. The world is once again watching.

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