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UN Climate Talks Risk ‘Hissy Fit’ as Envoys Deadlock

UN Climate Talks Face ‘Zombie’ Future
Christiana Figueres, the UN diplomat leading the discussions, said countries were so far apart that a solution wasn’t on the agenda for this meeting. Photographer: Omar Torres/AFP/Getty Images

Envoys at United Nations climate talks were locked in negotiations during the final day of a two-week conference as 193 nations remained divided about how to curb global warming.

“There’s a real danger that if we don’t get a successful outcome that this becomes a zombie process,” Chris Huhne, Britain’s Cabinet minister in charge of energy, said today in Cancun, Mexico. “There is potentially nothing to stop one or more countries from having a hissy fit and throwing all of their toys out of the pram.”

After last year’s push for a legally binding agreement to limit emissions collapsed in Copenhagen, the UN scaled back ambitions. Disputes over how to reduce greenhouse gases may kill a deal aimed at protecting forests and giving as much as $100 billion a year in aid to vulnerable countries by 2020.

China, India, Brazil and South Africa pressed industrial nations to agree to new restrictions on fossil fuel emissions after current ones in the Kyoto Protocol expire in 2012. Japan, Canada and Russia refused, saying the accord excludes the world’s two biggest polluters, the U.S. and China.

‘Nothing Cut in Stone’

“Everything is still being negotiated,” Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner in charge of climate policy, said at a briefing today. “There is nothing cut in stone. If we do not get things done in Cancun, it’s very difficult to see how you get from A to B.”

Huhne said last night’s negotiations ran until 3:30 a.m. as envoys “found a potential way through” difficult issues, foremost among them the continuation of the emissions-limiting Kyoto Protocol and how to bring greenhouse gas pledges by all nations under formal scrutiny.

Mexican organizers are working to “build bridges with all the countries,” Environment Minister Juan Elvira said today in an interview. It’s a “good sign” delegates are prepared to talk day and night, he said.

A meeting of all parties scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. was postponed to the afternoon the UN said. Mexico has said it intends to conclude the meeting at 6 p.m. today, though the gatherings in previous years often ran overtime.

“There isn’t a conclusion,” Pablo Solon, lead negotiatior of Bolivia, which is pressing richer nations to renew commitments under Kyoto instead of working on a new treaty. “Everyone wants to live in a better home, but no one would demolish their home without having a new one done.”

Copenhagen’s Collapse

Last year, Bolivia joined Venezuela, Sudan, Cuba, Nicaragua and Tuvalu in blocking the Copenhagen Accord, an agreement brokered by about 30 leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, from being adopted as a formal UN text.

A failure in Cancun to reach agreement may lead to a loss of confidence in the UN-led international effort to curb global warming. A dispute about the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which set out the world’s first program of emissions limits, marred the two weeks of talks. Christiana Figueres, the UN diplomat leading the discussions, said countries were so far apart that a solution wasn’t on the agenda for this meeting.

“Kyoto is the lynchpin,” Alden Meyer, who has attended the UN talks for the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists for more than a decade, said in an interview. “If the message out of here is that Kyoto is dead or on life support with no chance of resuscitation then the developing countries will block anything going forward that the U.S. needs for a new treaty.”

U.S. Position

U.S. negotiators seek an agreement that brings all the world’s major emitters into a single treaty. Kevin Conrad, special climate change envoy for Papua New Guinea, said the U.S. position that all elements of a deal must be negotiated together rather than separately hinders progress.

“They are playing the same position that Saudi Arabia is playing which is when you don’t want progress to move then you say everything has to move at the same pace,” Conrad said in an interview. “Then by definition the whole process moves at the pace of the slowest.”

UN envoys in Cancun are working with a text that isn’t “very progressive” Hedegaard of the EU said today. Yesterday, Japanese Environment Minister Ryu Matsumoto said his country’s opposition to a new commitment period, stemmed from the fact the Kyoto Protocol “only covers 27 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions.”

Observers at the talks from the development charity Oxfam said Japan may compromise.

“It seems Japan is moving in the right direction, and the focus is now on Russia,” Tim Gore, climate change policy advisor to Oxfam said in an interview. “Everyone’s on tenterhooks about the Kyoto Protocol.”

‘Watered Down’

A Cancun agreement needs to be “building blocks for a new universal agreement,” Alexander Frolov, deputy head of the Russian delegation, said today in an interview in Cancun. “From our point of view there’s not any sense to just continue because only a few limited countries have obligations.”

Delegates were working on language that would aim to keep temperature gains to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Current emissions reduction pledges could lead temperatures to rise 2.5 to 5 degrees by 2100, the UN Environment Program said Nov. 23. Small island nations grappling with rising seas are pushing for a limit of 1.5 degrees.

“I’m really disappointed, because we’re toying around the edges,” Bharrat Jagdeo, president of Guyana, said in an interview. “Positions are watered down. The greenhouse gases are being pumped into the atmosphere.”

Final Package

As the talks enter the final scheduled day, some delegates said they are holding out hope for an agreement on forests and aid, as well as setting up an advisory body for adapting to climate change.

“We have differences, but they can be bridged,” Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira, who along with the U.K. was tapped by the UN to find a consensus, said in an interview.

The deals being negotiated in Cancun include:

-- A fund to channel as much as $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries clean up industries and adapt to rising temperatures. How it will be managed and who will sit on its board will be worked out next year.

-- A forest protection program known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, or REDD. It would fund forestry projects and may allow developing nations to earn money from carbon markets by setting aside forests to absorb greenhouse gases.

-- An “adaptation committee” to advise nations on how to prepare for and adapt to climate change.

-- A package of details on how to monitor, report and verify emissions reductions by developed countries and climate protection actions taken by poorer ones, or MRV in UN jargon.

With details still to be arranged, and today’s schedule already running more than three hours late, delegates expect to work into the night again.

“Today’s going to be a difficult day, and a very, very long day,” the EU’s Hedegaard said. “I’ll dare to invite everybody to dinner if we really finish at 6 p.m. as scheduled.”

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