The Cancun End Game

| Fri Dec. 10, 2010 5:40 PM EST

It's a little over halfway through what is supposed to be the final day of negotiations in Cancun, but whether resolution is coming anytime soon is still unclear—much less what exactly it will even look like. Delegates and observers are scrambling to get a hold of the latest text of potential agreements and parse what it means, but there are still outstanding existential questions about outcome.

The fate of the Kyoto Protocol remains the biggest question here, largely because everything else hangs on it. Russia threw a major wrench in negotiations by formally announcing what everyone assumed, that they would not commit to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. Japan made waves on that front in the first days of the conference, and it has not backed off. "A second commitment period is not the appropriate, effective, or fair way to tackle climate change," Japanese negotiator Akira Yamada reaffirmed Thursday night.

Both countries have said they want a new agreement—one that includes major emitters like the US and China, as only about 27 percent of the world's emissions are covered under Kyoto. "Now we feel little common responsibility," said Yamata, referring to countries they don't feel are carrying adequate weight at this point in time. The problem is, there's no clear signal now that a new agreement is going to be legally binding, or at least won't be any time soon. The other track of negotiations here have gone painfully slowly—last year's talks produced the non-binding political agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord, and it's not even yet clear whether those relatively low-ambition targets will be formalized in Cancun.

The announcement, said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, "sent shockwaves through the negotiations." Meyer noted that it seems like the countries are trying to use Kyoto to force the US and China to the table on a new deal, though it doesn't look like that's being particularly effective. In a meeting with the Japanese minister, Meyer warned that killing Kyoto "would feed the forces of denial in the United State that are trying to block the president's plan" to meet the pledge it made in Copenhagen.

Letting Kyoto expire is a deal-breaker for developing countries, who made their position known once again on Friday. "The African group is committed to seeing a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol," said Tosi Mpanu-Mpanu environment minister for the Democratic Republic of Congo and chair of the Africa Group. "This is what is required to keep us safe."

He balked at the idea that African nations and other developing countries would be asked to formalize commitments made under the Copenhagen agreement without any assurance that the only legally binding instrument, Kyoto, is going to continue to hold developed nations to their pledges. "Those people are willing to do things, but they would like to see some sign," he said. "It's a confidence building exercise. "

He also expressed hope that the European Union would take a more firm stance on continuing Kyoto. While he noted that he views EU as a partner in this and believe that they themselves are committed to continuing their pledges, a more explicit statement would be reassuring. Instead, he said, "the EU seems to be obsessed with some country across the Atlantic."

But representatives of the EU have stressed they are also intent on the new deal as a condition for moving forward on the 13-year-old protocol. "Kyoto as such is not enough," said Joke Schauvliege, Flemish minister for the environment, at a Friday morning presser. "There must be more if we really want to combat climate change."

Even if they figure out a way to deal with Kyoto, there are still a number of questions about the legal form that agreements will take. It's not clear yet whether the new deal would effectively replace Kyoto, or if the two would exist simultaneously, or if the new agreement is even on the path to being legally binding. That's another big question still to be pounded out in the final ours.

And it's still not clear what will emerge in the final text of a new agreement, and whether it will be agreed to. The US canceled its press conference Friday afternoon. Its negotiating team has been insistent that a final agreement here move all parts of a package forward, and, as of US climate envoy Todd Stern's last public statements, the team was not content with language on the issue of transparency. Other countries—and many observers—have harshly criticized the US for threating to hold up elements of the package like financing for developing countries to deal with climate and a mechanism to deal with deforestation in order to bargain on transparency.

Brazil's Ambassador chief negotiator Luiz Figueiredo emerged from a meeting with the BASIC countries—the short-hand for the four large developing countries, Brazil, South Africa, India and China—expressing confidence that those countries would approve an agreement for the new deal here. He noted, though, that the debate in the group on the transparency issues was "very intense" and that there were still conversations going on about specific elements.

But asked about fate of Kyoto, which looks like the biggest sticking point right now, Figueirado responded, "That's a good question."

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