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Cancun Climate Talks: Signs of Progress or More Stumbling Blocks?

BY Jenny Marder  December 10, 2010 at 7:00 PM EDT

Our first question: What do you expect will be the most important thing to come out of this year’s U.N. Climate Conference? What is the take home message here?

Kyle AshSenior Legislative Representative

Greenpeace USA

It’s about 4:30pm in Cancun on what was scheduled to be the last day of the negotiations, and everything still seems up in the air. We know negotiators have narrowed down the options, and now they re locked behind closed doors to hammer things out.

A very important result would be if the U.S. would show a bit of flexibility on the design of the Global Climate Fund. This fund is key to achieving agreement on all other issues, in part because it shows the world that the U.S. is serious about an international agreement. The Global Climate Fund will help poorer countries keep pollution to a minimum as they develop, and help them cope with climate impacts like the disastrous floods in Pakistan this last year. The flexibility the U.S. has shown regards, in large part, responding to calls to keep the World Bank out of the climate fund, as it has an abysmal record on climate and is still providing new funding to build the largest coal plants in the world.

The U.S. is still dragging its feet. They have intervened to stall on almost every single issue discussed. By stalling on climate policy, President Obama is emboldening climate denying bullies like Congressmen (Joe) Barton and strengthening the bullies’ polluting funders, such as the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel magnates. Obama is also alienating people who see the desperate need for reasonable policies to protect the public.

 

Juliet EilperinNational Environmental Reporter, The Washington Post

While the final outcome remains unclear, the overriding message coming out of Cancun is the U.N. process continues to take a tremendous amount of time to deliver what–at best–can be considered modest progress in addressing the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Robert StavinsDirector, Harvard University Environmental Economics Program

As of this hour, we do not yet know what the final outcome will be in terms of any agreement, accord, or communiqué. If this Climate Change Conference is like the previous one, the negotiations will continue late into the night. Like all of us have experienced in various kinds of meetings at our own workplaces, the discussions expand to fill the available time, and whether a meeting is set to be five minutes or five hours, the final deal is made at the very end. Having said that, I would venture at this point that the most significant thing to come out of the meeting is the increased level of engagement by China.

At a minimum, they are on a significant charm offensive, but more substantively I believe that Chinese leaders recognize that whereas the 20th century was the “American century,” the 21stcentury can well be the Chinese century. And they recognize that for that to happen, China must assume its rightful place of credibility, respect, and indeed leadership in the world. One dimension of that is its participation in these discussions in Cancun and the promotion of its domestic climate and energy policies at home.

The other important thing that has come out of this year’s Conference of the Parties is the growing recognition that there may not be a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (post-2012). This is due to Japan’s very strong statement on the first day of the conference, from which they have not backed down. I suspect that many other Annex I (largely, industrialized) countries were privately delighted with Japan’s position. This is because – in my view – international climate policy is like a huge ship that is moving very slowly across the ocean. It is moving slowly, and sometimes stalling, because its anchor is dragging along the bottom. The counter-productive anchor in these climate talks is the dichotomous distinction between Annex I and non-Annex I countries. That is preventing meaningful progress. Indeed the reason why last year’s Copenhagen Accord actually represented some real progress was that it blurred the Annex I/non-Annex I distinction (although, sadly, it did not eliminate it). There are many ways – many creative ways – to make real the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” without this simplistic, outdated distinction, as we have researched and written about in the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

Michael OppenheimerDirector, Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, Princeton University

The most important outcome that’s likely to occur is progress on two key issues. One is the U.S. concern over monitoring, reporting and verification of claims that deal with reductions of emissions. This was a sticking point at Copenhagen, and I doubt it will be resolved here in Cancun, but there could be significant progress, mostly in the way that China and the U.S. approach each other. Even if they don’t close on issues, I expect there will be room for talk about China’s argument that the U.S. approach would violate Chinese sovereignty, and the U.S. having reduced anxiety that the Chinese are trying to shirk responsibility. At Copenhagen, there was a lot of ill feeling and a confidence barrier. Maybe the most important thing to accomplish at Cancun is to surmount that barrier, allowing countries to settle on meaningful agreements in that area.

The second area is the so-called REDD program — Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. There, we have a program which would eventually transfer resources to developing countries in return for them reducing the rates of deforestation and preserving their own forests. So the program is very close to a phase where it could actually be implemented, but decisions were put off in Copenhagen in terms of where the money would come from. The general feeling is that progress could be made on it. This was a program close to ready to roll out. I don’t know if they’ll reach a final agreement at Cancun. However, this is one area where the negotiations could also stumble by not making progress, because there were expectations that progress would occur.

I think, all in all, what we should look for is not earth-shaking gains, which no one expects, but improvements in the diplomatic atmosphere and progress on a couple of different issues. That will be the determination of whether it’s a success.

Samuel ThernstromSenior Climate Policy Advisor, Clean Air Task Force

The most striking theme of Cancun is the collapse of the Kyoto Protocol, and a renewal of efforts to construct more effective alternatives. Many developing nations still hold onto hopes that the Kyoto architecture can be preserved in a new global climate agreement, and they are strongly resistant to suggestions that we move beyond that system into an approach that seeks emissions reductions from all major emitters. The political debate there is difficult, but the reality is that climate campaigners have no choice but to let go of that idea and look to new opportunities in the future. Cancun was a small but important step forward in the effort to find practical ways for nations to cooperate on climate and energy policies that can actually be enacted, rather than continuing to preserve the dream of a comprehensive climate treaty.

In a larger sense, dreams of a domestic emissions cap died in Congress last year, and climate campaigners are now in a period of reassessment as we think about different ways to approach the problem; the same dynamic is playing out in Cancun, but there is even greater reluctance to face up to that difficult reality. The recent admission from Christiana Figueres, head of the UNFCC, that “there won’t be a final agreement on climate change in my lifetime,” was a striking moment of clarity on this question. This is simply not an issue that can be solved in one fell swoop; it is one that will require patience and practicality.

And a second question: Expectations seem to have shifted from hopes for a universal agreement to more modest policy changes between or within individual countries and regions. Should this be seen as a setback or a necessary shift in direction?

Kyle AshSenior Legislative Representative

Greenpeace USA

Climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution. The global climate talks promote domestic policies whether or not we get a treaty, but we must also have a treaty as soon as possible to ensure that the collective global response is enough. The increasingly productive involvement of business, such as Coca Cola, Cisco, and Ericsson which were here promoting renewable energy solutions, as well as the continued involvement of civil society and scientific community, means that the forces are coming together to get a treaty. We expect ministers here to put together enough pieces that we should expect a fair, ambitious and binding deal in Durban, South Africa next year.

Juliet EilperinNational Environmental Reporter, The Washington Post

In the wake of slow progress within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, it’s no surprise that individual countries, regions and business interests are moving ahead with their own climate policies. It simply underscores the fact that many key decisionmakers see curbing carbon emissions to some extent as in their best interest, but are incapable of endorsing a broader, more ambitious approach to tackling climate change.

Michael OppenheimerDirector, Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, Princeton University

I think what’s happened is the world of climate negotiations has split into separate and different venues of progress that can be made. One is big international meetings like Cancun, and certain issues like the REDD issue, can perhaps be handled best there. Other issues like targets and timetables for big emitting countries like China and the U.S. are probably best handled in smaller forums, like the Major Economies Forum, where only 20 countries participate, the 20 major emitters.

Look, climate change is a big elephant of an issue. Not everything can be handled simultaneously in a big jamboree of a meeting like Cancun. Some are best handled in smaller settings, where countries can look each other in the eye, where there are a small number of issues to be addressed. That’s where it’s evolving. The big meetings served an important purpose: to put climate change on the map. Now, it’s time to find a particular route to solving the problem. The situation is much more complex than 188 countries meeting in a single room in a single place and reaching a solution to the problem. Instead, we’ll make gradual progress in a variety of fronts in different venues.

Robert StavinsDirector, Harvard University Environmental Economics Program

This need not be a setback; it can be a healthy indication of pragmatism, in my opinion. For many years, I have written and said that the de facto (but not de jure) post-Kyoto international climate policy architecture could well be the bottom-up linkage of national climate policies. One example of this is the direct and indirect linkage of regional, national, and sub-national cap-and-trade regimes around the world. There is tremendous pressure both from governments and industry to link these programs because it brings down costs, reduces price volatility, and reduces market power. Such linkage can and will happen through bilateral agreements AND through unilateral decisions of national or other cap-and-trade systems to accept offsets from a common emission-reduction-credit system, namely the Clean Development Mechanism. More broadly, it is possible to link together a heterogeneous set of national policy instruments. One can read in detail about all of this in the discussion papers published by the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.

More broadly, I think of the sewing together of the emerging set of regional, national, and sub-national climate policies as a web, not the beautiful, symmetric web that is a single, comprehensive global agreement (the Kyoto Protocol, for example), but a rather messy web. But the key question about a web is not about its beauty, but whether it catches flies – whether it’s effective. And a bottom-up scheme as I’ve described very briefly above can be effective, and at a minimum, it can be a sensible stepping stone to future, top-down, more centralized international (and not necessarily global) agreements.

Samuel ThernstromSenior Climate Policy Advisor, Clean Air Task Force

Clearly, it is a necessary shift in direction—an unavoidable accommodation of reality. It has become indisputable that a national cap on America’s emissions is not politically viable in this Congress, so environmental advocates are starting to think about alternatives. The international picture is much the same—only the dreams of a second Kyoto-style treaty were always more unrealistic, and their demise is even slower. Many of the crucial, difficult decisions will be deferred in Cancun in the hope that they might be resolved at the next Conference of the Parties; many will be disappointed by that, but it’s a necessarily slow process.

There is no chance of negotiating an international treaty that could actually be endorsed by 190-some nations and also earn 67 votes in the Senate. We need to move beyond that dream and look at discrete, practical steps that can be taken to encourage energy innovation, technology transfer to developing countries, business-to-business partnerships, practices that can curtail deforestation, and ways of reducing non-carbon dioxide pollutants and practices such as methane and black soot.

We’re not likely to see big headlines out of Cancun championing a new agreement on that approach—but behind the scenes, I think important progress is being made. When the Copenhagen Accord was announced last year, it was initially unclear whether it would be an alternative to Kyoto or a complement; many advocates thought the Accord could be a stepping stone to another Kyoto-style agreement. A year later, it’s become clear that’s not the case. The Accord is the start of a new approach to climate, one that focuses much less on international consensus and much more on bilateral and multilateral agreements outlining the practical steps each nation is willing to undertake, and willing to prove they are implementing. We need to walk before we can run on climate, and even those of us who feel a strong sense of urgency on the issue should take heart from the direction of movement, if not the pace of progress.