Delegates brace for setbacks but hope for the best as Cancun’s climate summit kicks off

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This year’s climate summit – which begins Monday –  unlike last year’s COP15 in Copenhagen, will not be attended by heads of state, who flew in at the last minute to broker a modicum of progress after a two week deadlock and produce the Copenhagen Accord. Even this accord, however, has yet to be signed by the 193 nations within the UNFCCC.

Indeed, some are questioning whether COP16 will even clear the hurdle of keeping negotiations alive.

But officials at the talks will have plenty of work to do – and one of their hardest tasks will be to work out how an agreement on climate change can be financed.

Yvo de Boer, who was the UN’s chief climate change official at last year’s Copenhagen summit agrees.

“I think Cancun will succeed if it mobilises business and finance across both the developed and developing worlds to take co-ordinated action on global climate change work,” he told the Financial Times.

“Specifically, if it moves forward the thinking about how market-based mechanisms [such as carbon trading] can tie into government policy delivery on the ground,” he told the paper.

Financial hurdles

Finance was a major sticking point at last year’s negotiations: Developing countries are depending on rich ones to assist them in infrastructure investment to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the likely impacts of climate change.

And rich countries in Copenhagen agreed to provide $30 billion in “fast start” financing within two years – though to the chagrin of environmentalists and developing countries, much of this money was already accounted for by existing aid budgets.

Rich governments also committed that $100 billion should be funnelling into poorer nations by 2020. These governments insist that their taxpayers will not be forced to foot the bill for this largesse. But there has been little luck in recruiting the private sector to shoulder the burden.

According to the Financial Times, a UN published report published this month addressed how these finance issues could be resolved. The report suggests a tax  on the carbon intensive aviation and shipping industries that could garner $10 billion a year, the Financial Times quoted the report as saying. The UN paper further suggested that $100 billion a year could come from carbon markets, the Financial Times reported.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would like governments at the Cancun summit to discuss the UN Report.

‘Shouting distance’

Meanwhile, while conceding that there will be no deal at this year’s climate summit, Britain’s Energy and Climate Secretary Chris Huhne told the BBC that the Cancun meeting could get the world “within shouting distance” of a binding deal that may come next year.

A binding deal seemed possible to many last year as talks closed in Copenhagen with the Copenhagen accord. At that session some of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters struck a deal: Industrialized nations would cut their emissions and by 2020 and would mobilize $100 billion a year in aid for the poorest countries suffering the effects of global warming. In exchange, major developing countries agreed to international scrutiny of their own emissions cuts.

US climate legislation collapse

But the Copenhagen accord has taken some body blows in the last 12 months as the procedural bickering that has dominated negotiations for years has re-emerged.

Further, the collapse of American climate legislation in US Congress, added to the recent election of dozens of Republican lawmakers opposed to federal limits on greenhouse gases, the straining US economy and continued high unemployment have further undermined prospects for the United States – once a great hope of the international community – to stick to a meaningful deal.

Last week, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid – on Democrat to have held his seat – announced that there will be no cap-and-trade climate legislation considered in the newly elected Congress, putting any further debate on it off for at least two years, if not longer.

“Given the election results, there is no chance we can deal with cap and trade,” Reid said.

President Obama said last month that Democrats would instead address energy and climate issues in “bite-sized” pieces, including mandates for wind, solar and geothermal power and incentives for more energy efficient buildings and vehicles – a far cry from his ambitions plans as recently as two years ago.

Still, those most invested in a global climate deal recognize that without some modest progress in Cancun on issues like preserving tropical forests, transferring clean technology to developing nations and establishing the framework for international climate aid, the process might collapse altogether.

“We cannot afford any more failures,” Erik Solheim, Norway’s minister for the environment and international development, was quoted by the Washington Post as saying.

Further bickering on Kyoto

But failure, reports the Post, is what many are bracing for, and that failure seems to centre around ongoing arguments about extending the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that set binding emissions targets to below 1990 among its signatories. The first compliance period expires in 2012, but imposed no emissions cuts on China or India. The United States never ratified the Protocol.

Yet, many nations, including Japan, are now hinting that there will be no second compliance period, leaving many to fear that the Kyoto Protocol is headed towards extinction.

UN general secretary expects ‘concrete results

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expects “concrete results” in three areas during the Cancun talks. Ban believes the parties to the talks are close to sealing a deal on how handle deforestation and technology transfers.

So for Cancun, Ban will urge governments to make progress on some of the more challenging issues, on mitigation, emissions reductions, and how to ensure accountability and transparency, as well as the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

“This is a much more important meeting than people give it credit for. We’re at the point where the focus of climate policy is shifting, and that requires strong political leadership,” Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Post. “If negotiators don’t respect that high-level political decision [forged in Copenhagen] they’re not left with anything, and it takes things in a more marginal direction.”

But other counties complain that the Copenhagen Accord was railroaded upon them by a handful of countries – the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa.

Steer clear of divisive issues

Norway’s Solheim suggested that Cancun’s negotiations should sidestep some of the more controversial issues, saying that delegates to COP16, shouldn’t focus on the central points of Copenhagen – like the depth of emission cuts and the monitoring of those cuts – because the United States’ failure to adopt climate legislation and other developments make it impossible to reach an agreement on these matters.

“Everyone has appealed to the U.S. to be flexible in Cancun. We should agree where we are in agreement, and not wait for the rest,” Solheim was quoted by the post as saying.

“There is no way we will be able to resolve the monitoring and verification issue [for major developing countries’ emissions cuts], as well as we cannot resolve the issue of non-emission reductions in the United States itself.”

But Todd Stern, US special climate change envoy, told the Post that the United States is standing firm on its pledge to reduce its emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 even in the absence of domestic climate legislation, and that the United States would not endorse any deal in Cancun that did not embody the fundamental political agreement forged last year.

“To say, ‘Gosh, it’s really hard to do these issues …… Let’s just do the issues we all agree on,’ you know what? No. That’s not the way we think it works,” Stern told the Post.

If countries abandon some of the key elements of the Copenhagen Accord, Stern said, they are moving “away from what we agreed to on a leader level.”

Climate negotiations outside the UN

In recent weeks, key officials around the world have begun to question whether a climate deal can be pursued outside of the UN process if it falters in Cancun, whether it’s through global groupings such as the G20 or the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which brings together 17 major emitters for regular meetings.

Jonathan Pershing, the Deputy US Climate Envoy told reporters on  October 6 that, “The consequences of not having an agreement coming out of Cancun are things we have to worry about. It doesn’t mean that things may not happen; it may mean that we don’t use this process exclusively as the way to move forward.”

Stern told the post the United States is open to pursuing other avenues if the process reaches a stalemate, ”but our focus is on making progress in the UN.”

Connie Hedergaard, the European commissioner for climate action, warned that other negotiating forums could have their liabilities as well, telling the Post that, “Yes, it’s easy to see what are the weaknesses in the UNFCCC process, but it is more difficult to say what would be alternatives that would provide a lot of results.”

Rajendra K. Pachauri, who leads the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predicts that bilateral agreements – such as the one between India and the United States – may form the basis for any long-term climate pact. “My belief right now is we really ought to think in terms of a bottom-up approach,” Pachauri told the Post. “All of this, in my view, will bubble up and could provide the conditions for a multilateral agreement. But God knows when, because everyone seems to think it’s not around the corner.”

The state of the world

Meanwhile, the state of the world’s climate is not getting any better. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) last week released data showing that greenhouse gas levels continued their rise through 2009.

It follows publication of a scientific paper over last weekend suggesting that without new constraints, global carbon emissions will re-commence rising at 2 to 3 percent per year, following a brief lull caused by the global recession.

And on Tuesday, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said pledges that countries had made on constraining emissions were not enough to keep the global temperature rise within limits that most countries say they want – either 2C or 1.5C since pre-industrial times.

Charles Digges