WASHINGTON — Global talks on climate change opened in Cancún, Mexico, on Monday with the toughest issues unresolved and little expectation of a breakthrough on shaping an international treaty to curb emissions of the heat-trapping gases linked to global warming.
But some who attended the meetings, sponsored by the United Nations, expressed muted hope that small steps could be made on a decades-long journey to reduce the planetary threat of rising global temperatures.
The United States entered the talks in a weak position because of a lack of action on domestic climate and energy legislation and continuing disputes with China and other major developing nations over verification of emissions reductions. The United Nations negotiating process itself is on the line, with many saying that the 190-nation talks cannot survive another debacle like that at Copenhagen last December.
This year’s talks come at a low point for global climate diplomacy. Last year, more than 100 heads of state gathered with hopes of fashioning a binding treaty to address global warming. A year later, midlevel envoys are trickling into a Mexican resort with hopes, at best, of averting disaster.
Last year, President Obama had large majorities in Congress and hopes of passing a comprehensive climate and energy bill. Next year, he faces a new Congress much more dubious about the reality of climate change and considerably more hostile to international efforts to deal with it.
Still, leaders expressed belief that the United Nations remained the best, if not the only, place to address a problem that will require a global solution.
“We’re not going to solve the whole problem this year, but we can lock in bigger and better agreements every year,” said Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat who took over this year as executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that convenes the talks. “Multilateral negotiations such as this one involve not just solving an environmental problem but actually involve the transformation of economic patterns and the economic structure we have lived with for decades.”
The annual climate change conference combines the technical complexity of arms control negotiations with the leaden pace of global trade talks. It attracts thousands of journalists, environmental campaigners and corporate executives, each looking for a story or selling a product.
The actual negotiations tend to take place behind closed doors, where progress is measured in verb tenses and punctuation changes. And nothing of significance seems to happen until the 11th hour of the final day.
This year’s conference opened with the same set of issues that the participants left on the table when the meeting in Copenhagen broke up a year ago and the same flawed document — the Copenhagen Accord — before them.
At the end of the chaotic talks in Copenhagen, participants failed to adopt the accord, a nonbinding statement of good intentions, but only “took note” of the three-page document. About half the participating countries have since agreed to “associate” themselves with the accord.
But even if all the promised emissions reductions in the accord were achieved, the world would still fall short of the action needed to meet the goal of keeping global average temperatures within two degrees Celsius of preindustrial times.
Despite a year of preliminary meetings, delegates remain far apart on the two biggest questions: how much and how quickly nations will reduce their emissions of climate-altering gases and what sort of international monitoring can be established to ensure that countries are meeting their targets. No one expects that the gaps on those issues will be significantly closed over the next two weeks in Cancún.
There has, however, been some progress on the other four major points of discussion at the talks. Those involve slowing the destruction of forests, sharing technology to produce energy in less-destructive ways, helping poorer countries adapt to the inevitable changes to the climate and building a multibillion-dollar fund to further these goals.
The goal at Cancún, according to negotiators and observers, would be a “balanced package” of progress on each of those issues and an agreement by the wealthier countries to make good on their promise to come up with $30 billion in short-term financing to help developing nations adjust to global climate disruption.
Jonathan Pershing, the deputy United States climate envoy, said Monday in Cancún that while preliminary talks this year had been hung up by disputes over substance and procedure, “We are optimistic we can work through many, if not all of these.”
He also said that the United States and China had made progress on some issues dividing them and that the United States was prepared to contribute $1.7 billion to the short-term adaptation fund, most of it new money appropriated by Congress.
What remains really difficult, and what most likely will not be resolved at Cancún, is the fate of the 13-year-old Kyoto Protocol, the global warming agreement largely set to expire at the end of 2012. The protocol — never accepted by the United States — sets different requirements for developed and developing countries. It has been used as a cudgel by large developing countries like China, India and Brazil to demand more emissions reductions by the United States and other advanced economies as a price for their own participation in any global climate regime.
China has passed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse pollutants and has voluntarily taken large strides toward slowing the growth of its emission. But it refuses to be bound to an international agreement that does not require larger, verifiable reductions from the United States and other wealthy countries.
The United States is demanding that the protocol’s distinctions among countries be scrapped and that all nations move forward together to attack the problem of global climate change. Until that fundamental dispute is resolved, the prospects for progress are slim.
“Success here will mean finally discarding Kyoto and beginning the process of requiring major developing countries to cut emissions along with developed countries,” said Paul W. Bledsoe of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, who is in Cancún and has followed climate deliberations for years. “Both substantive and political progress demand that the Kyoto stalking horse be let loose.”
Reference: THE NEW YORK TIMES, 2010. Science. Taken on December 2nd, 2010 from: