The UN climate change process "risks losing momentum and relevance" if the new round of negotiations that opened in Cancún yesterday (29 November) fails to make progress towards a new climate treaty, the EU's climate action commissioner has warned.
"It is crucial for the international community to prove that Cancún can deliver progress," Connie Hedegaard told journalists yesterday in Brussels.
Otherwise some parties might start to "lose patience" with the UN negotiating format, she warned.
But despite the complicated UN negotiations involving some 190 countries, Hedegaard said it would be "much more difficult to point to some alternatives that could deliver more progress".
Fewer leaders are expected to attend the two-week conference than visited Copenhagen last year. In the Danish capital, expectations ran sky-high as the EU, among others, said the conference would either make or break a new climate treaty.
A year on, the EU and the US have toned down the rhetoric and no longer expect to agree on a comprehensive new treaty this year. The EU now talks of a "balanced set of decisions" that includes something for everybody but does not attempt to solve the whole puzzle.
"Cancún will be successful, if parties compromise," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). "Cancún will not solve everything and the outcome needs to be pragmatic, but Cancún also needs to keep ambition very much alive."
Issues on the table
Some of the issues that could be agreed in back-room negotiations in the Mexican town include rules on monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of emission reductions, key elements of a programme reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) and mechanisms to transfer technology to developing countries.
Much, however, will depend on funding to help developing countries deal with climate change.
The EU will try to break the deadlock between rich and poor countries by presenting its fast-start finance report at the talks, showing that in 2010, it mobilised €2.2bn from the total of €7.2bn it said it would deliver over the next three years. It is hoping other developed countries will follow its lead.
The negotiating parties could also agree on key principles governing the future Green Fund that is to support developing countries in cutting their emissions and adapting to the inevitable consequences of climate change. Cancún could also start the process of setting up the fund.
The EU's to-do list also includes reforming the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows industrialised countries to meet a proportion of their targets by funding projects to reduce emissions in developing countries. It would like to improve its efficiency and environmental credentials, and scale up UN carbon market mechanisms to include entire sectors in advanced developing countries.
Looming failure to limit global warming to 2°C
But while a lot of technical decisions could potentially be taken, countries are unlikely to table more ambitious emissions reduction pledges. This would, however, be necessary to keep global warming below 2°C, which is recognised as a strategic threshold beyond which climate change could become catastrophic.
Cancún will, however, aim to formally encode in a UN decision the emissions reduction pledges made by many countries after Copenhagen.
But even the 2°C target as stated in the Copenhagen Accord, endorsed by 140 nations, has been questioned, notably by small island states who argue that halting global warming at 1.5°C would be more likely to save them from rising sea levels.
Difficult questions on the legal format of the new climate treaty are also likely to arise during the second week of the negotiations, when heads of state and ministers arrive.
The UK Met Office last week warned that evidence of man-made global warming had grown even stronger over the last year.
"It is clear from the observational evidence across a wide range of indicators that the world is warming. As well as a clear increase in air temperature observed above both the land and sea, we see observations which are all consistent with increasing greenhouse gases," said Matt Parlmer, an ocean observations specialist at the Met Office.