Saturday, December 4, 2010

What is going on here?

Things are getting interesting here in Cancun. Not necessarily in a good way, but interesting nonetheless. Late yesterday afternoon an alliance of nine Latin American countries called ALBA (Alliance for the Americas) threatened to walk out on the Cancun negotiations is documents being prepared for the high-level ministers due to arrive next week do not include provisions to extend the commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (KP).

As we have mentioned before, the KP is the only legal instrument existing that directs countries to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. While it is generally expected by the public that UN negotiations have the aim of producing a document to replace the KP before it times out in 2012, it is unclear how many parties share this view. In light of the inability of countries to come to any resolution of this issue last year in Copenhagen there is a widespread desire among many countries to retain the Kyoto Protocol by extending its commitment period so that it effectively would not time out in 2012.

Japan has already made quite a stir by declaring in one of the plenary sessions that they would under no circumstances accept extended emissions under a revised Kyoto Protocol. While there is a great deal of speculation about why Japan would make this statement at the beginning of negotiations, it is clear that a number of other large developed countries party to the KP also feel this way (Russia, Canada, and Australia in all likelihood). The U.S. is, of course, not involved in this discussion as they have never ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

What are we negotiating?

Over the past couple of days, it has become clear that there is a great deal of disagreement and debate on the exact nature and goals of existing negotiations. Though it seems a tad absurd for such an effort to be expended with no clear outcome in mind, it reflects the disparity in expectations held by the different parties.

Form vs. substance

There have been a number of detailed and mind-numbing debates in some of the sessions about whether form or substance should come first. What this means is that there are a group of countries that want everyone to declare that they are working towards an agreement that will be a legally-binding treaty. Others would like to not have the conversation about what such an agreement would look like until there is consensus on what is being agreed to in the first place (substance). It might seem crazy but this is one of the main sticking points that more than anything, illustrates just how far countries are and how little agreement there is on what they are negotiating for.

Two-track vs. one-track

This was a conversation that came up time and time again last year in Copenhagen and still has yet to be resolved. Essentially, there are two distinctly different conversations happening here in Cancun. The first set of conversations is among the countries that have signed on to the Kyoto Protocol (pretty much everyone but the U.S.). The main issues involved here is what will happen to the KP and all the emissions reductions countries have pledged to in 2012 when the agreement times out.

The other conversation is among signatory countries to the original Framework Convention on Climate Change (the U.S. is included in this group). So whenever the term COP (conference of parties) is used, it always refers to this group.

The LCA (Long-term cooperative action) is a working group of the COP that is tasked with negotiating things such as adaptation strategies for climate, funding mechanisms to transfer aid from developed countries to developing countries, REDD (forestry practices to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation) etc. etc.

But it is unclear what all the details worked out by the LCA will become. What is the COP negotiating for? What will the agreement made (if it is ultimately made) look like and will it require countries to make emissions cuts, or encourage them to do so. That is a huge difference especially when these cuts become difficult to attain - and they will be difficult to attain.

To bring this back to the beginning, there are some countries who want the two tracks (Kyoto Protocol and COP-LCA) to remain separate. This way, even if the LCA talks do not result in a legally binding agreement they will always have the KP to fall back on.

Countries who are keen to keep the KP are developing countries (such as ALBA) and those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as small island states. Those countries that would like all of these separate negotiations to be combined into one single agreement (Japan, Canada, Russia and Australia) have no problem seeing the KP expire as long as it is replaced by something else.

What exactly will happen is anybody's guess at this point. Right now it is a stalemate.

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