Published online 3 December 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.653

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Cancún week one: A climate of confusion

Progress on smaller emissions agreements threatened by dispute over Kyoto Protocol.

So far, nothing to jump up about and celebrate.UNFCCC

With the international community in gridlock over greenhouse gas emissions, few people were expecting much in the way of a frank discussion this week at the 16th annual meeting of members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. So it came as something of a surprise early on in the meeting when Japan decided to open up.

On 30 November the country announced it would not agree to an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, the only international agreement with legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The statement threw the talks into a frenzy, overshadowing progress in other areas and raising significant questions about how to frame a meaningful agreement in Cancún. By week's end, there was no obvious solution in sight.

The notion that the Kyoto Protocol cannot move forward in its current form — without some kind of parallel commitments from the United States and rapidly developing countries such as China — is something of an unspoken truth in the climate arena, says Ted Parson, an environmental policy expert at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "It's just that the Japanese, bless their hearts, have been more honest about it than anybody else."

Going into the Cancún meeting, most experts focused on a host of issues included in last year's Copenhagen Accord, all of which have been under active negotiations. The assumption was that countries would find a way to quietly skirt the chasm between developed and developing nations over what to do with the Kyoto Protocol, which is poised to go dormant if it is not extended beyond its current commitment period in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol's fate is now front and centre in the talks, and it will inevitably be wrapped into whatever kind of agreement negotiators try to pull together next week.

The problem is that broader questions about the legal framework of an agreement once again threaten to overshadow progress in other areas. Many developing countries want to set a deadline on negotiations over a binding commitment, but the United States and China in particular aren't ready and might not be for several years or more, says Elliot Diringer, vice president for international strategies at the Pew Center for Global Climate Change in Arlington.

"We need to accept that it's going to take time," Diringer says, suggesting that countries would be wise to set aside talk of a final treaty and instead focus on smaller agreements that would begin to put in place some of the elements of a larger accord. "We need to understand that the international regime is an evolutionary process."

In addition to convergence on issues such as deforestation and adaptation, there have even been some signs of a thaw between the United States and China, which have spent the past year arguing over issues of how countries should report and verify greenhouse gas emissions. India is seeking to bridge that gap with a proposal that requires developing countries that emit more than 1% of global emissions to submit to a new system of enhanced reporting and verification for their climate commitments.

Fear of failure

But regardless of whether there is agreement on these issues, negotiators in Cancún will have to answer basic questions about the goal of the talks in order to frame the decision and create a mandate for discussions going forward. Diringer says one option being floated by the Mexican delegation would be to avoid the issue of long-term goals altogether by adopting a package of agreements while specifying that the decision is "without prejudice" to any future deliberations.

In other words, none of the agreements would necessarily lock countries into a position that they don't like. For his part, Diringer says a positive but very general declaration — committing countries to negotiate toward a binding international agreement at an unspecified date — might be preferable.

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"We need some decision and a mandate that says where we are going," says Lou Leonard, managing director of climate change for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. "It's really one of the open questions — how far can we get in framing the next year or two of the negotiations process? I don't think that this process in Cancún is going to get us to full clarity."

Parson says it's almost always possible to reach an agreement of some kind due to the general fear and embarrassment of failure. The question, he says, is whether an agreement will actually promote progress, and he is not convinced that advancing smaller accords will accomplish this goal.

"I'm actually increasingly concerned that those steps might be at best irrelevant or at worst obstructions" to the kind of action that will be required, he says, suggesting that the best hope for real breakthroughs might be outside the United Nations process, in smaller groups of emitters like those that cobbled together the Copenhagen Accord. "Those haven't succeeded to date, but I think they have more promise for success than anything in the universal forum." 

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