23rd Jan 2020

UN method hangs in the balance as climate talks begin

  • The sun in Cancun may serve to remind delegates that 2010 is set to be among the warmest years on record (Photo: Tbass Effendi)

A year after climate talks in Copenhagen failed to secure a highly anticipated global deal to cut carbon emissions, key players say a further breakdown in fresh discussions this fortnight could spell the end of the UN multilateral negotiating process.

Representatives from roughly 200 states will descend on the beachside city of Cancun, Mexico on Monday (29 November), for the start of a 12-day session expected to be every bit as difficult as last year's acrimonious event.

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"If Cancun delivers nothing, or not much, then the UN process is in danger," the EU's climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, said last week.

Such a move would represent a step backwards say environmental groups. "Failure in Cancun could move talks to the G8 or G20 fora," Greenpeace climate activist Joris den Blanken told this website. "But away from the UN process, the mechanisms to test the reduction of emissions are lost," he added.

In a face-saving exercise last December, a smaller number of countries including the US and China brokered the Copenhagen Accord, agreeing to limit global warming to two degrees centigrade but failing to outline concrete steps to achieve this goal.

Despite deep unhappiness with the deal, negotiated behind its back, the EU signed the accord that also sets out national promises to cut carbon emissions, but purely on a voluntary basis.

Since then, Washington's failure to secure Senate approval for a climate bill, coupled with Republican victory in the mid-term elections, could make it harder for President Barack Obama to follow through with his pledge to cut emissions by 17 percent over the next decade on 2005 levels.

"The EU needs to start building an alliance so it can break the current US-China dynamic," says Mr den Blanken. "The US won't act without pressure."

For its part, Brussels has increasingly talked of a 'step-wise' approach to the multilateral talks, hoping to iron out a number of differences over the coming days in Cancun before a final deal can be concluded in South Africa next year.

One area where the 27-member bloc hopes to see progress is in efforts to slow global deforestation. Another is agreement on a system to measure, report and verify (MRV) national emission cutting efforts that wealthy countries demand their poorer counterparts adhere to before committing to aid transfers.

"If there is no progress on MRV, I think that could be a reason for no deal at Cancun," one senior EU official said ahead of the talks.

Developing countries are more reluctant however, seeing the issue as an assault on their sovereignty. Instead they are keen to secure technology transfer and money from the West to help them adapt to the effects of climate change, including 'fast-track' funding for the 2010 to 2012 period, and further details on last year's promise to provide $100 billion in long-term aid and private-sector finance.

Already there are disagreements over the public-private nature of this long-term money, although the go-ahead to create a Green Fund to raise the cash could be one of the tangible results to leave Cancun.

Parallel talks on the Kyoto Protocol over the coming fortnight could provide a key to securing a broader deal, with developing states calling for richer 'Annex II' countries to pledge more funds under a 'second commitment period' (post 2012).

"This is our big bargaining chip," said the EU official in an off-the-record briefing. "We will only play it when we see action from the other side."

Meanwhile, the Mexican sun will help remind those meeting in Cancun that 2010 is on target to becoming one of the warmest years on record.

"If the world fails to stop emissions from continuing to climb by 2020, the prospects for the people on the planet are pretty bleak," said British energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne this month.

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