Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 6 December 2010

Tensions rise at mid-point in Cancun climate talks

After a week marked by Japan's shocking announcement it would leave the Kyoto Protocol, delegates will try to salvage some successes in the Cancun climate talks


The Cancun climate conference is at its half way point, with Ministers already starting to arrive.  So far there is little new to show, but there are hopes that next week will see a breakthrough in a few areas.

The most tangible outcome is expected to be a decision to establish a new multilateral climate fund to assist developing countries to take their climate actions.  There is already broad agreement on this, but details need to be filled in next year.

Also on the table is the creation of a new “technology mechanism” in the UN climate convention that has two parts – a  technology executive committee and a technology centre with networks.                                                                                                                        

But here is the snag – the United States reaffirmed at a press conference that there will not be an agreement on finance and technology unless it gets its way in mitigation, or actions to avoid carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change.

This linkage of issues is a major problem. Mitigation is the most complex and controversial area, involving so many issues in which countries have differences that appear impossible to bridge this coming week. Thus, success may well elude the Cancun conference.

The big issue in mitigation is the future shape of the climate regime.  The developed countries are supposed to commit to a second round of emission cuts in the Kyoto Protocol, beginning immediately after the first period ends in 2012.

But at the opening session of the Kyoto Protocol meeting last week, Japan shocked the delegates by announcing that under no circumstances would it join a second period of the protocol.

This gave the world media something to write about in what would have been a dull week of dry negotiations.  In fact Japan was being frank and honest, but its stark refusal to continue with the protocol sparked a crisis whose time had come.

To the developing countries, the legally binding protocol is the symbol of the commitment of developed countries to take the lead in cutting emissions.  The abandoning of the protocol by Japan (the country that hosted its creation) is a strong sign that many developed countries are losing interest in an internationally binding regime.

Under this protocol, developed countries have to make legally binding emission-reduction commitments as individual countries and collectively reach an ambitious target that is based on what science requires, which is at least 25-40% by 2020 compared to 1990, or more realistically the 40-50% emissions cut as demanded by the developing countries.

In contrast is the new “pledge and review” system, championed by the United States, in which the developed countries set their own targets, which may or may not meet the reduction that science requires.

Acceptance of this system would mean the killing of the Kyoto Protocol and its replacement by a system of voluntary pledges by developed countries.

At the first week of the Cancun meeting, the developing countries fiercely resisted the attempts to switch from the Kyoto Protocol to this voluntary pledge system.

But most developed countries appear firm in wanting to jump ship and join the US (which is not a Kyoto Protocol member) in the new system.

They also pressured the developing countries, especially big ones like China and India, to take on more obligations, including inscribing their mitigation targets and policies in a schedule and being subject to intense international scrutiny on whether their actions match their targets.

The developing countries are willing to do more than in the past, but they resent being pressurised to take on new obligations when the developed countries are planning for themselves a “great escape” from their own commitments.

Thus the Cancun meeting is seeing an intensification of the contradictions at the heart of the global climate negotiations.

How it will end next Friday is anyone's guess at this mid-point.  Cancun's potentially sure success – the setting up of a new fund to help developing countries – is being held hostage to this web of mitigation issues.

One further complication is the process of negotiations.  In the first week, there was a fear that the host country, Mexico, was planning to get selected Ministers and later heads of states to meet on their own to do their own negotiations, apart from the delegates who have been meeting.

Such an exclusive process is viewed with great suspicion by the delegates.  It was the non-transparent and exclusive nature of the process at the Copenhagen talks last year that led to its chaotic ending.

Last Saturday, the Mexican foreign minister responded to the concerns by promising that there would not be any exclusive process that would undermine the open meetings.

This caused a collective sigh of relief from delegates that do not want a repeat of the Copenhagen fiasco.

It will be an interesting week ahead, in which the fate of the Earth will continue to be negotiated.