EU warns climate talks risk irrelevance as Cancún opens

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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.

EU employers' association BusinessEurope argued that the EU's strategy for Cancún must take into account the policy priority of economic partners, particularly on energy security, energy competitiveness and economic development.

"The European business community needs progress on an international agreement to bring its low-carbon solutions to the global market and to ensure a level playing field. We want to take a share in the responsibility by reducing emissions and by delivering products which help customers to reduce emissions everywhere," said Philippe de Buck, director-general of BusinessEurope.

WWF said that among the challenges in Mexico are questions related to the creation of "a legally binding set of commitments to safeguard the planet and its people, including the future role of the Kyoto Protocol". Differing views by key countries like Japan, the US, China and India on what such a treaty should contain are continuing to slow progress, it pointed out.

"What is important for Cancún is to build tools that enable action on the ground and build the architecture for such a global agreement, without waiting for the complete set of solutions to emerge all at once," said Gordon Shepherd, leader of WWF's Global Climate Initiative.

Greenpeace argued that the biggest questions centre around what governments will do about the US. It said the argument that the US as a major emitter must be part of a global agreement is "increasingly looking like an excuse for inaction" by the EU and China.

"It is time for the EU to stop hiding behind the US and become leaders. Equally, China must stop responding to US attempts to goad it into a public fight – a tactic that is clearly driven by the US administration's need to distract attention from the fact it can bring very little to the table," said Greenpeace International Climate Policy Director Wendel Trio.

The International Network for Sustainable Energy (INFORSE) called for countries to improve the CDM, which it said currently does not reach the poor and the vulnerable.

"In addition, many of the projects that receive support are much less effective to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases than the reductions they offset in the industrialised countries," the NGOs said.

An improved mechanism would target poor people directly and include only CO2 and CH4 emissions, INFORSE said.

The Copenhagen UN climate change conference in December 2009 was designed to outline a new international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

But after two weeks of extenuating talks, world leaders delivered an agreement that left Europeans "disappointed" as it did not include binding commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The result was a minimalist deal, called the 'Copenhagen Accord', which included a pledge by developed countries to raise $100 billion per year by 2020 to help climate efforts in poor countries.

  • 29 Nov.-10 Dec. 2010: UN climate conference in Cancún, Mexico (COP16). Objective is to advance negotiations on basis of Copenhagen Accord. No binding agreement is expected.
  • 28 Nov.-9 Dec. 2011: UN climate conference in South Africa (COP17). Possible date for approving new international climate treaty.

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