"I'm Not Sure We Will Actually Get It"

| Mon Dec. 6, 2010 10:12 PM EST

There's draft text on the table here in Cancun, but will there be a meaningful outcome? It remains far from clear. On Monday, US climate envoy Todd Stern didn't exactly express confidence on that front. "I think there is an agreement to be had," he said. "I'm not sure we will actually get it."

Stern emphasized that the US is still focused on "genuine balance"—they have stated repeatedly here that they will not endorse a final text that moves some portions forward but not others. Specifically, the US is intent on hashing out details for transparency on emissions reductions, which has been a key sticking point with China, and has argued that it doesn't believe components like a global fund to help poor countries cut emissions and adapt to climate change can move forward without that. "A balanced package," said Stern, "doesn't mean a great deal of detail on some issues and a 50,000-foot level of detail on others."

Transparency measures would be designed to ensure that countries are following through on their emission pledges—but exactly what it would look like is a hot topic here. The draft text has several options for language, but Stern said the text is "very spare" and "completely inadequate" at this point in time, while expressing hope that those details would be worked out in the coming days.

China's chief negotiator Xie Zenhua also made some encouraging statements Monday as well, noting that developing countries should also formalize their voluntary commitments in an agreement. On the transparency question, he said, "We think that the principles should respect nation sovereignty, they should be non-intrusive and non-punitive, and they need to build trust." He was also bullish on meeting his own country's goals, with or without a formal deal. "Our voluntarily reduction commitments will be honored and implemented," he said.

Whether there's a deal on the new agreement—one that involves the US and China—is also significant to the ongoing debate here about the fate of the Kyoto Protocol. Japan has said it will not endorse a second commitment period for the 13-year-old treaty, and Russia and Canada have expressed similar positions. The countries argue that they don’t want to make new commitments without the assurance that a new, legally binding global agreement will happen. But developing countries say that the second commitment period should not be a bargaining chip. "It is very clear that they are currently diametrically opposed there," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, but noted confidence that parties "realize that the only way they can come to agreement is to explore the middle ground."

One of the few parties here who can push the issue forward may be the European Union, which has largely backed the US position on a "balanced package." The EU's most significant role, however, could be in forging an agreement on Kyoto. "The EU is willing to consider a second commitment period, in the context of global agreement including all major economies," said Joke Schauvliege, the Flemish Minister of Environment said Monday.

The EU has already committed to an emission cut of 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, though it has said it would commit to a 30 percent cut if there are assurances that the US and others will follow through on their pledges. Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, noted that it "Goes without saying that others should have to take their fair share as well" when it comes to cutting emissions. But Hedegaard cautioned against "throwing away what it has taken years to construct" on the Kyoto Protocol.

European NGOs note some division among members states about the protocol. "A number of governments in the EU do want to give a clear signal in Cancun that the EU wants to engage in a second commitment period," said Wendel Trio, climate policy director for Greenpeace International. They're hopeful that the delegation here will be more firm about supporting it. "It's clearly needed for EU to be much more explicit and to really guarantee to the developing world that they really want a second commitment period."

And they're hoping the EU could push for a higher level of ambition in the overall talks. "What we're looking for is that the EU doesn’t go compromising and lowering our ambition in order to get a deal from here," said Ulriikka Aarnio, senior policy officer with the Climate Action Network Europe. "An empty package is of course not useful for climate."