The Balancing Act in Cancún: Early Impressions of COP-16

Delegates in COP16 Plenary (photo: UNFCCC)

The United Nations climate change negotiations are underway in Cancún and the rhetoric from the major developed country parties is that they are searching for “a balanced package of decisions.” The top US negotiator, Todd Stern, used that term last week in a pre-conference press conference in Washington and Stern’s deputy on the ground in Cancún, Jonathan Pershing, deployed the similar language in a press conference on Monday.

So what does this mean?  A somewhat ominous article in the Guardian suggests that the US is adopting an “all or nothing” approach to the talks.   Essentially, the US is pushing large developing country polluters like China and India to submit to emissions cuts from business-as-usual that are internationally monitored and verifiable.  In the absence of this, the US will be less likely to support key developing country concerns, such as financing for climate adaptation and technology assistance.

One reflection of this tension can be seen in the proceedings of the AWG-LCA–the negotiating stream that is looking for an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol.   A negotiating text was prepared in August for this track, but at 70 pages, it is unwieldy and doesn’t resolve key issues on safe levels of global warming, who should mitigate emissions and by how much, and how emissions should be monitored and verified.

A shorter (33 page) text listing “possible elements of the outcome,” was prepared in the interim by the AWG-LCA chair.  It largely papers over the differences in the negotiating text by accepting many of the elements of last year’s Copenhagen Accord to the extent that it presents a 2 degree warming threshold and a financing ambition for developing countries of $100 billion (USD) by 2020.

Like the Copenhagen Accord, the “possible outcome” text is sketchy on how to monitor emissions, actual emissions mitigation numbers,  and how the financing mechanism will operate.

What is significant here is that the Copenhagen Accord is essentially being used as a basis for determining what exactly is in the so-called “balanced packages.”   Because the US has pushed so hard for some type of international monitoring regime, it will be important to see how these discussions bear out over the next few days.

India has emerged as a broker of compromise, setting forth a proposal for international monitoring.  This would meet US concerns, but at this point India is offering its proposal in exchange for keeping the Kyoto Protocol track alive–something that the US (and now Japan) are not interested in seeing.

China has been the most vocal about resisting US demands for an international monitoring regime, so their response to India’s gesture will be another key development to watch for over the coming days.

I’ll be blogging “live” from Cancún beginning tomorrow, so stay tuned at this site or over on twitter.