Will the Cancun Conference Be Copenhangen Redux?

Environmental ministers and climate change negotiators have been very busy the past few weeks. With the UN’s Cancun Climate Conference due to kick off at the end of November, scores of international environmental meetings have been staged, and other conferences that were not specifically about climate change have seen important background discussions of the approaching summit.

What has emerged is an official UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) plan for the progress to be made at the Cancun conference — and many reasons to doubt that it will be followed.

The plan for Cancun

At a pre-Cancun agenda-setting meeting in Mexico City, the UN’s Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe gave a technocratic assessment of what she hopes will occur at the UNFCCC’s 16th Conference of the Parties (COP 16). Mukahanana-Sangarwe, the Zimbabwean chair of the group of nations that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, believes negotiators can quickly conclude discussion on financing for adaptation, sharing information on agriculture and technology, and setting rules for the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program (REDD+).

These three key issues are the only areas she expects substantive progress to be made. For market-based mechanisms or other cost-effectiveness options, “further work will be needed,” she said. The contentious issues of deeper emissions cuts will likely have to be resolved at future negotiations, according to Mukahanana-Sangarwe.

She may not seem overly optimistic, but even her sober-sounding assessment may be wishful thinking. As she acknowledges, progress on these important subtopics is all dependent on the overcoming the fundamental climate negotiation disputes over monitoring, reporting and verifying (MRV) of treaty commitments, which rich countries like the United States insist on, and securing more climate funding, which developing nations like China are demanding.

Simply put, rich nations don’t want to promise more money until they know where it’s going and poor nations don’t want to promise stricter verification of their promises until they know they can get more money. “This creates a series of interconnected chicken and egg situations, which,” Mukahanana-Sangarwe says, “calls for compromise and political leadership to seek a middle ground.”

Many hurdles in the way

Both have been sorely lacking in the ongoing climate negotiations. Looking beyond the superpower standoff, even in the areas Mukahanana-Sangarwe believes can be rapidly resolved, there are still tremendous political hurdles to overcome at COP 16. Of the three issues where she says negotiators “could deliver concrete results… without having to devote much time to them in Cancun” — adaptation financing, technology sharing, and REDD+ — only the forestry conservation program looks like a strong bet.

Vexing questions remain about the money set aside in Copenhagen for adaption. A paper released today by the International Institute for Environment and Development found that developed countries are not delivering on the $30 billion in so-called fast-start climate finance pledges. This precursor climate aid is intended to build the capacity and trust needed to ramp up the climate funding to the $100 billion annual level promised by rich nations in last year’s Copenhagen Accord after 2012.

“Only $3 billion [of the fast-start pledge money] has been formally allocated for adaptation,” Dr Saleemul Huq of IIED explained in a statement. “There is also a danger that some of this could come in the form of loans which would further indebt already poor nations and force them to pay to fix a problem that the developed nations created.”

Mukahanana-Sangarwe also suggested low emission technology transfers could be a done deal at Cancun, but a two-day ministerial meeting in Delhi on the topic failed to reach any consensus. Ministers from the 35 nations in attendance — a fraction of the countries involved in the UNFCCC process — couldn’t even agree to a joint statement. Instead, India released a chair summary of the meeting, which concluded on November 10th.

The host country’s discouraged environmental minister Jairam Ramesh told reporters, “we are running out of time, Cancun is the last chance. The credibility of the climate-change mechanism is at stake.”

Banking on a breakthrough

Reaching a firm agreement on fast-start adaption funding and technology transfers could go a long way towards restoring the UNFCCC’s credibility. So what can help negotiators overcome the obstacles that have so far prevented progress on these issues?

If rich and poor countries can get past the road block of better MRV vs. more climate aid, then perhaps the other issues will seem like speed bumps by comparison. The road to new, binding emissions reductions to be agreed upon at COP 17 in Durban, South Africa would then be much clearer.

But, given that the same monumental dispute divided the two groups at the last climate conference in Copenhagen and so little progress has been made in the year since then, it is difficult to see how another conference will push the climate negotiations over the impasse. It appears that the UNFCCC is headed into Cancun with the same plan as Copenhagen and hoping it will lead to a different outcome.