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Final week

December 6, 2010

As the Cancun climate conference enters its final week, a new treaty to cut greenhouse gases appears out of the question. Yet two significant victories are within reach – provided an impasse over Kyoto can be resolved.

Melting glacier
Critics warn time is running out to save glaciers from meltingImage: AP

No one expects a new framework agreement to tackle greenhouse gas emissions to emerge this year.

However, two crucial elements of such a treaty are within reach as the Cancun climate talks enter their "high level" phase this week.

Forestry and finance may yet distinguish the summit as a success of sorts.

Deals on both seem possible as environment ministers prepare to take over the negotiations of their delegates this Tuesday, but much hinges on a dispute which erupted last week.

"After one week it has become clear that Cancun offers two possibilities: The complete burial of the Kyoto Protocol on the one hand, or the basis of a future agreement next year in South Africa," Greenpeace Climate Coordinator Martin Kaiser told Deutsche Welle.

Kyoto in the air

Cancun 2010 logo
Deals on forestry and finance could be reached in Cancun

The Kyoto Protocol is a totem issue for developing countries, and many – especially China – are going into the second week of talks determined to see its renewal.

China's lead negotiator, Su Wei, told the country's Xinhua news agency that there was "no room for compromise on principles," in an interview on Sunday.

Japan exposed a chasm in the talks when it entered negotiations last week saying that it had no intention to commit to a second period of Kyoto after its first period expires in 2012.

Japanese negotiator Hideki Minamikawa said it did "not make sense" to continue with the current system, as it only imposes obligations on a small number of countries.

The Kyoto Protocol, agreed in 1997, is the only legally-binding treaty to date to tackle the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for heating the planet.

Recognising the developed world's historic contribution to the problem, it distinguishes between differing obligations for rich and poor, requiring industrialised countries to cut their emissions by an average of five percent on 1990 levels in the first period.

The trouble is it applies to less than a third of man-made emissions and doesn't cover the world's top two polluters: China, a developing country, is not legally obliged to make cuts and the United States is not a party.

The European Union, which has the most ambitious climate agenda in the industrialised world, is between Japan and China on the issue.

It says it supports Kyoto, but it wants to gain concessions from major developing countries, such as clear commitments to emissions reductions and independent verification of these kinds of actions.

Other countries including Russia, Canada and Australia appear to be keeping their cards close to their chests.

Dried ground in Pakistan
So far the deals made in Copenhagen have not been watered downImage: DW

Money in the bank?

Which is to say that progress on some of the most significant developments to come out of last year's disappointing meeting in Copenhagen hangs in the balance.

"The negotiations are extremely fluid at the moment," Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), told Deutsche Welle.

"There is nothing that has really been gained in the first week but perhaps there is also nothing being lost. The pledges that were made In Copenhagen remain, they haven't been watered down, nobody has cancelled them, but the main challenge right now as we head into the second week is how to anchor these pledges so they are secured."

One of the Copenhagen Accord's most impressive achievements was the promise to raise $100 billion (75 billion euros) a year for developing countries as of 2020.

The money is designed to help pay for the costs of responding to climate change – everything from flood prevention to relocation to developing new crop varieties.

Rich countries' willingness to name a figure in the ballpark needed by the developing world was a major step forward in the negotiating process, because it is recognised that money is vital for unlocking other areas of the talks, including poorer countries' acceptance of emissions targets or independent monitoring of their actions.

With progress on the figures for climate finance all but consolidated, remaining differences could be overcome this week.

These include determining which parties gain ultimate control of the money as well as how much should be publicly backed, and how much should be privately raised.

Seeing REDD

Forest in China
Countries rich in forestation could be compensated for reducing loggingImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The other area of the talks which could yet prove successful involves securing a deal to compensate forest-rich developing countries in return for foregoing logging.

Deforestation is believed to account for around 17 percent of human-induced emissions, around about as much as the transport sector globally.

The rainforest alliance, a non-government organisation, estimates the cost of cutting deforestation in half by 2020 at around $25 – $30 billion per year.

Though this sounds like a lot of money, spent globally it could be one of the most cost-effective ways of cutting the planet's emissions in the short term.

While there is a broad consensus in support of establishing a mechanism for rewarding forest preservation, here too the devil is in the detail.

Making conservation lucrative can open conflicting interests with miners, loggers and agri-businesses, and how to account for emissions savings is also a tricky business, with loopholes potentially allowing for pollution increases disguised as decreases.

On the issue of emissions targets more broadly, there is little hope of seeing anything more ambitious than was presented in last year's Copenhagen Accord.

A UNEP report ahead of Cancun found that the Accord's combined voluntary emissions reductions still only amounted to 60 percent of what scientists say would provide a reasonable chance of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius.

On the bright side, it doesn't look like countries are backtracking on these pledges either.

Author: Nathan Witkop, Helle Jeppesen
Editor: Rob Turner