August 10, 2010

A Cancun Update: Elusive Progress in Bonn

Squeezed in amongst last week’s apocalyptic news reports on the floods, fires and mudslides that Christine mentioned yesterday, the BBC reported that international climate change negotiations are veering even farther of course since Copenhagen (if that’s even possible).  Negotiators from both developed and developing countries apparently are in agreement on one issue only: negotiations are moving backwards. 

Climate change negotiators have met several times already throughout the year in an attempt to pull together a negotiating text for the upcoming UN climate talks in Cancun this December.  Negotiators are also meant to be accomplishing the less tangible task of “rebuilding trust” after the disappointing outcome at the Copenhagen Conference last December.

According to the BBC report, some major developing countries are backing away from the commitments they made to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  The chief U.S. negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, is quoted as saying that some countries had “walked away” from the commitments they made in Copenhagen under the non-binding Copenhagen Accord: “at this point, I am very concerned... unfortunately, what we have seen over and over this week is that some countries are walking back from progress made in Copenhagen, and what was agreed there,” Pershing said.  On a more technical level, the negotiating text has apparently ballooned from 17 to 34 pages, as countries race to make more additions.  The EU’s co-lead negotiator described the changes to the negotiation text as a “tit for tat” exercise. 

Readers of our previous “Cancun Week” posts may recall that the Cancun conference has aimed its sights significantly lower than the Copenhagen conference, with the goal of discussing smaller, more achievable technical issues such as climate adaptation and mitigation financing and technology transfer, rather than the more difficult goal of a new legally binding emissions reduction treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.  If this shift in focus seems disappointing, then the progress of the Bonn talks is even more so.  According to a Reuters report, a World Wildlife Foundation representative stated that “The mitigation discussion even went backwards and became more polarized.”  Specifically, progress toward discussions on reducing deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) was nullified, as the parties re-opened discussions on how to define REDD.  And discussions about climate finance remained predictably contentious in light of the global economic recession, with Pershing stating that some developing countries were asking for “staggering sums out of line with reality.” 

While the current economic crisis, combined with the atmosphere of mistrust, is one explanatory factor for the disheartening news from Bonn, another is the U.S. Senate’s inability to pass legislation that would cap greenhouse gas emissions.  While U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern and other American representatives tried to downplay the impact of the Senate’s indecision, it’s reasonable to assume that after twice being unable to follow through on carbon emissions limits (once after signing the Kyoto Protocol and again after Copenhagen), other countries may begin to doubt the United States’ ability to follow through on its climate change commitments altogether.  Even though the goals are scaled down, trust amongst the parties will still be essential for forging agreements on climate finance, REDD and technology transfer. 

Prospects are increasingly dim, but mounting sense of urgency for action could put negotiations back on track. Consider for example President Medvedev’s reaction to widespread drought and fires in Russia: “What's happening with the planet's climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate.” So don’t count Cancun out just yet. We’ll keep you updated.