Cancun Climate Negotiations: No Holiday in the Sun

The next round of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations are getting underway in Cancun, Mexico this week. I’ll be joining the National Wildlife Federation’s delegation to Cancun to fight for a fair, ambitious, and binding international climate treaty. The venture will be anything but a holiday in the sun.

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Last year in Copenhagen, Denmark, the prospects of a new climate treaty were dealt a significant blow when countries failed to meet the world’s expectations and completion of a final climate treaty never materialized.  In place of a treaty, the countries completed a political agreement called the Copenhagen Accord. While the Accord managed to put global warming pollution reduction pledges from both developed and developing countries on the table, the agreement was simply taken note of by the UNFCCC as a voluntary agreement and lacks the legal standing of a binding and enforceable treaty.  As result, there is need for the Cancun meeting to build back confidence that all nations are working in the negotiations toward achieving a global climate deal in 2011.

From the National Wildlife Federation’s perspective, there are three critical things that must happen to consider Cancun a success:

1. The U.S and China Must Stop Their Public Shouting Match Over Climate

Together, the G2 account for around 50% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Simply put, there is no solution to the climate crisis unless both the U.S. and China agree to reduce their global warming pollution. Under the Copenhagen Accord both countries made pledges to reduce their emissions. The U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions 17% from 2005 by 2020 and China pledged to lower its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. While these Accord pledges are inadequate to keep global warming below the critical 2 degrees Celsius, they did represent some progress.

Since making those pledges, however, the U.S. and China have engaged in a downward spiral of verbal accusations on a number of issues ranging from currency valuation to the legality of renewable energy subsidies to how the world handles North Korea. The increasingly hot rhetoric has bled over into the climate negotiations with loud public squabbles over the meaning of the emission reduction promises and other pledges made as part of the Copenhagen Accord.

For Cancun to succeed, both countries need to take their disagreements out of the headlines and focus their energy at the negotiating table to figure out how both countries can move together to solve the climate crisis. If Cancun remains nothing more than a forum for a U.S. – China spat, the treaty negotiations may be derailed for good. The countries have already laid the groundwork for cooperation through a series of memoranda on energy and climate and both sides would be wise to remember it.

2. The U.S. Needs to Come Clean About Its Ability to Meet  its 17% Emissions Reduction Target

Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive climate and energy legislation has created uncertainty throughout the world as to whether the U.S. will be able to meet its Copenhagen pledge. It has also raised doubts as to the ability of the U.S. to formalize those pledged reductions into final decisions in Cancun.  This “trust gap” hangs over the treaty negotiations and threatens any progress.

The U.S. needs to confront this dynamic. It should tell the world about some of the significant steps it has taken to reduce its greenhouse gas emission despite the failure to pass comprehensive legislation. Using authority already provided from Congress, as confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. has taken concrete efforts under the Clean Air Act to start tackling its global warming pollution.  The most prominent step is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) use of the law to reduce emissions from the U.S. automobiles and trucks sector.

Trumpeting this progress, however, is not enough to bridge the “trust gap.”  Many in Congress are threatening to remove EPA’s ability to use the Clean Air Act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and this is making further progress harder. The U.S. has to tell the global community that the current domestic political situation makes it difficult for the country to clearly articulate how it will get to 17% by 2020.  This tact might not win a lot of new friends, but it would help build trust by showing the U.S. is being open and transparent in its negotiating.

3. Complete the Deal on Several Key Aspects of a Treaty

While the Copenhagen meeting did not yield a final climate treaty, the negotiations did make significant progress in a number of key areas on how a treaty would work. In Cancun, countries should complete these aspects of the deal.  Agreements are within reach on how countries can reduce the 15% of global emissions from deforestation (an issue known as REDD+), how financial resources can be provided to make developing countries more resilient in the face of the most serious impacts of climate change, and how all countries can benefit from, and have access to, clean energy technologies. The U.S. should not stand in the way of wrapping up of these agreements with final decisions in Cancun.

Completing these building blocks would provide the energy boost needed to move the negotiations forward to South Africa in 2011.