For the past two weeks, government officials, climate campaigners, and the traveling circus that follows international negotiations have descended on the tropical resort island of Cancun on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast.
The Cancun summit was not supposed to come up with a formal global deal on climate emissions. Instead, it was to make incremental progress on agreements for financing of adaptation and mitigation in developing countries, and agreement on “Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation” (REDD). There is also continued hope that the two largest emitting countries, China and the United States, can come to agreement on how to monitor, report, and verify actions on emissions. Action on this is important to the United States, so that they know that any agreements negotiated will be fulfilled. Likewise, it is important to China to resist overly intrusive measures that would compromise their national sovereignty. Hope was raised on agreement on this issue in remarks made by China Huang Huikang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's envoy for climate change talks:
"We can create a resolution and that resolution can be binding on China. Under the (U.N. Climate) Convention, we can even have a legally binding decision. We can discuss the specific form. We can make our efforts a part of international efforts."
Ultimately, the goal of Cancun was to act as a bridge to the 2011 summit in South Africa, in hopes of negotiating a formal settlement there.
However, there is an issue that has arisen as the most important and contentious – and threatens to bring down the talks: whether countries will agree to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol after its planned expiration date in 2012. Many negotiators, including the United States, thought that the Kyoto Protocol – signed by President Clinton in 1997, never ratified by the Senate, and formally withdrawn from in 2001 by President Bush – had been finally killed by the Copenhagen Accord last year.
The division over Kyoto boils down to the same developed/developing country divide that plagued the Copenhagen Summit last year. By and large, developing countries want to extend Kyoto, and developed countries want to switch negotiations to a treaty that would look like the Copenhagen Accord. The foundation of this dispute is that the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated and agreed under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”. What that means in practice is that developed countries are responsible for making verifiable emissions reductions, while nothing is asked of developing countries. The United States and EU argue that it is unfair to ask developed countries to reduce their emissions, while large developing countries, including China or India – the 1st and 4th largest emitters in the world, respectively – are not asked to reduce their emissions. Not only is this inequitable, it is inefficient – because businesses could simply more their production from a place like Europe – where carbon emissions are limited by law, and therefore cost money – to China, where carbon pollution is not limited. In the terms of the climate change debate, this is called ‘Carbon Leakage’ and it implies that global emissions (the only thing that matters for climate change) could actually go up by limiting emissions in one area, but not in another. So far, only Japan and Russia have formally come out against extending Kyoto, but Canada and other countries are also likely to oppose an extension.
However, with some developing countries, support for Kyoto has become a symbol of anti-western solidarity. Most developing countries, however, are in favor of extending the Protocol, with some Latin American countries, notably Bolivia and Venezuela, saying they will not support any agreement that comes out of Cancun unless it continues the principles of the Kyoto Protocol. This threat is credible because Venezuela, Bolivia, and Sudan blocked formal ratification of the Copenhagen Accord last year over similar concerns.
Another factor in the debate about the Kyoto Protocol is that the United States is not a signatory to the Protocol, and an extension of it would mean that the US is not involved. The American negotiators are insisting that agreement that comes out of Cancun moves beyond Kyoto and recognizes the legitimacy of the Copenhagen Accord and the 2020 emission targets which both developed and developing countries made when they signed onto it.
A failure to come to any agreement in Cancun would probably spell the end of the UN as a negotiating forum for climate change. Last year’s Copenhagen summit left a bitter taste with many participants, because of the inability to negotiate among such a large and unwieldy body. Already, forums like the G-20 and the Major Economies Meetings on Climate Change and Energy Security are beginning to supplant the UN.
The UNFCCC is very transparent in the negotiations. Anyone wishing to follow today's negotiations can watch it here. The Cancun Summit's home page is here.
The IISD's reporting service has done an excellent job summarizing each day's conference. You can find it here.
Finally, the newspaper doing the best job in their coverage of this is the Guardian, here.