Climate change negotiators in Cancun look to bridge gaps

There's an expanding rift between developed and developing countries over whether to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions beyond the 2012 limits.

By , Staff writer

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    Activists walk behind a banner reading "Climate" during a protest march against climate change in Mexico City December 3. China accused some developed nations at U.N. climate talks held in the Mexican beach resort of Cancun of seeking to kill the Kyoto Protocol pact to curb global warming.
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UN-sponsored global climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, have recorded progress on several issues as negotiators wrap up the first of two weeks of work.

At the same time, however, negotiators are looking for ways to bridge what for the moment seems to be an expanding rift between developed and developing countries over whether to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol beyond the end of its first enforcement period. The protocol requires countries it covers to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of 5.5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Brinkmanship is nothing new in diplomatic negotiations. Experienced negotiators caution that talks such as these tend to get testy as the first week ends and ministers with the political authority to make deals begin to arrive for a second week of higher-level talks.

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Still, the dispute “is hanging like the sword of Damocles over this conference,” says Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Union’s lead negotiator.

The broad positions of each group aren’t a secret.

Industrial countries want to see the US and developing countries, especially burgeoning economies represented by China and India, accept international, legally binding measures to deal with their greenhouse gas emissions – even if for developing nations those don’t immediately involve economy-wide emissions reductions. Developing countries, however, are reluctant to make legally binding commitments unless developed countries continue to do likewise via the Kyoto Protocol.

Japan threw the issue into stark relief when talks opened Monday, however, by announcing it would not take part in a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. Since then, three other countries covered by the protocol reportedly have made similar declarations.

By week’s end, a small but vocal group of developing countries led by Venezuela and Bolivia threw down a gauntlet: No second Kyoto period? No package of agreements coming out of Cancun to help bring elements of last year’s Copenhagen Accord formally under the UN climate process.

The accord is a non-binding agreement. It failed to earn formal recognition under the UN process last year, although some 140 countries have since signed on to it.

Several of its provisions are seen as essential pieces of a next-generation climate agreement that would include developing countries. But because the 194 countries attending the talks must reach agreement by unanimous consent, one country or one hundred have equal clout in bringing the process to a standstill or blocking a final agreement at the conference’s end.

That’s the procedural reason the accord currently falls outside the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; a handful of countries, including Bolivia and Venezuela, refused to accept it as an official “decision” of last year’s meeting.

As for this year, “we have a chance to make progress here” after “extraordinarily difficult” talks in Copenhagen last December, said Todd Stern, lead US negotiator, during a press briefing Friday. “I would hate to lose that over strife over the Kyoto issue.”

Indeed, several observers note that while progress on fleshing out details of accord provisions is mixed, progress is nevertheless evident.

For instance, one of the issues widely seen as almost ready for prime time is known by its acronym REDD. Essentially, this would allow developing countries to earn credits they could sell on the global carbon market by preserving their tropical forests and avoiding the carbon-dioxide emissions deforestation produces.

One challenge has been deciding whether such programs should be nationwide once it becomes a formal UN mechanism for emissions reduction, a position developed countries have supported, or whether smaller-scale projects would earn credits for an interim period, as developing countries prefer.

After much back and forth, negotiators appear to be leaning toward the latter approach, notes Duncan Marsh, a former US climate negotiator and director of international climate policy for the Nature Conservancy, who is at the talks.

The reason: This would give developing countries – some of which lack the money and expertise to implement a nationwide program and the accounting system it would require – the opportunity to gain experience with smaller-scale projects before jumping into the deep end.

Another issue involves monitoring, reporting, and verifying the effect of actions countries agree to take to control their emissions, Mr. Marsh adds. Developing countries, especially giants China and India, have been concerned about the level of intrusiveness developed countries seemed to want, seeing proposals as affronts to their sovereignty.

But India and Singapore have put forward ideas that appear to have gained some traction at the talks.

“There a real possibility of bridging differences here,” Marsh says.

Financial aid to developing countries to help them adapt to the effects of global warming as well as to afford the technologies needed to control their greenhouse-gas emissions remains a challenge.

The Copenhagen Accord envisions a “green fund” reaching $100 billion a year by 2020. The hope is that this coming week’s ministerial level talks will be able to make progress on important pieces of the financing puzzle.

In the end, specialists say, the goal for Cancun is to make progress on each of three to six broad issues, depending on who is counting, in what has come to be dubbed “a balanced package.”

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