COP16 report: Cancun talks make quiet progress but key hurdles remain

6 December 2010

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager at The Climate Group, reviews the end of the first week of COP16 negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, where quiet progress seems to have been made, despite certain difficulties surrounding the fate of the Kyoto Protocol.

Climate negotiators appear to have made quiet progress during the first week of this year’s UN climate conference in Cancun, Mexico. But key hurdles to delivering a successful summit remain to be addressed and political input is likely to be critical.

For the most part, talks have taken place behind closed doors in informal consultative meetings in both the Convention and Protocol negotiating tracks. Rather than dive into formal negotiations, countries have spent a lot of their time on technical, legal and process issues to build understanding and confidence between parties.

Week one was not without its dramas, however.

Japan set the proverbial cat amongst the climate pigeons on the Monday by firmly stating that it was seeking a new, single climate agreement and was not prepared to sign up to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Although this was simply a restatement of Japan’s existing position, the unequivocal nature of the announcement created an unsurprising response from many environmental groups and developing countries.

While the statement did little to build an atmosphere of confidence in week one, it at least provided an early reality check to the Kyoto track negotiations, where Japan is by no means alone in its views. Parties now know the ‘lie of the land’, which may mean that week two negotiations are conducted under more pragmatic conditions. Had it not been so forthright in its position, then negotiations may have proceeded on the basis that Japan was simply bluffing, resulting in a far more serious, perhaps unsalvageable, breakdown at the end of the second week. Avoiding such a train crash is no small thing.

The fate of Kyoto

The future of the Kyoto Protocol, however, remains a totem issue for developing countries and needs to be addressed in Cancun in some way. Developing countries made it clear throughout the first week that the ‘balanced package’ of decisions that all parties are seeking from the talks must include a commitment to extending the Kyoto Protocol. The question is how to achieve this given divergent country views?

According to the UN climate chief, Christiana Figueres, there is “no magical surprise”: countries simply need to compromise and find common ground. Speaking to journalists on Friday, Figueres stated that it was unlikely that agreement could be reached in Cancun either guaranteeing a second Kyoto commitment period or to dismissing one. Instead, “countries needed to be equally comfortable and equally uncomfortable with the outcome” and to continue negotiations in the new year.

Despite the difficulties associated with the ‘high politics’ surrounding Kyoto’s future, parties were still able to make progress in other areas. On Saturday, during ‘stocktaking’ plenary meetings, the Chairs of the two negotiating tracks presented new discussion texts to parties. The Chair of the Convention track was able to report progress on adaptation, finance and technology. The Chair of the Kyoto track also noted progress in a number of areas including length of a future commitment period and what to do with surplus emission allowances from the current period.

However, the issue of mitigation remains the stumbling block in both tracks. Developed countries continued to push for formal ‘anchoring’ of all Copenhagen Accord mitigation pledges through the Convention negotiations. They also sought further progress on the monitoring, reporting and verification (or ‘MRV’) of developing country mitigation actions. Unsurprisingly, developing countries pushed back arguing that progress under the Convention track was contingent on progress in the Kyoto talks. Rather than give ground on mitigation and MRV, developed countries have sought to link progress on both subjects with progress on finance – one of the few areas where developed nations have a critical point of leverage.

What then for week two?

Much depends on early political guidance from ministers. The formal high-level segment of the conference begins on Tuesday. However, many ministers have already arrived and informal discussions took place on both Saturday and Sunday. If these talks have gone well, then prospects for progress will almost certainly have improved. Reports from previous ministerial meetings leading up to Cancun have been encouraging, suggesting ministers have been able to bridge divides that negotiators have been unable to cross. The challenge for week two of Cancun will be turning these political bridges into concrete decisions, allowing negotiators to move into more ambitious territory in 2011.

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