By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 4:46 PM
As representatives from nearly 200 nations prepare to gather for United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Cancun this week, a central question looms: Can they achieve enough to keep the negotiations alive?
No one expects the two-week meeting, which begins Monday, to produce a pact that would commit the nations of the world to curbing climate change. Such an agreement seemed possible a year ago, when the last round of negotiations concluded in Copenhagen. At that session some of the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters struck a deal: Industrialized nations would cut their emissions and by 2020 and would mobilize $100 billion a year in aid for the poorest countries suffering the effects of global warming; in exchange, major developing countries agreed to international scrutiny of their own emissions cuts.
But this agreement - the Copenhagen Accord - has come under fire over the past 12 months as the procedural bickering that has dominated negotiations for years has reemerged. The collapse of domestic legislation in Congress, coupled with the recent election of dozens of lawmakers opposed to federal limits on greenhouse gases, have further undermined prospects for a meaningful deal.
Still, those most invested in a global climate deal recognize that without some modest progress in Cancun- on issues such as preserving tropical forests, transferring clean technology to developing nations and establishing the framework for international climate aid - the process might collapse altogether.
"We cannot afford any more failures," said Erik Solheim, Norway's minister for the environment and international development.
Failure, however, remains a real possibility. For months negotiators have argued over whether to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which set binding targets for reducing emissions and whose first period is set to expire in 2012 - despite the fact that the United States has never ratified the agreement, which imposes no emission cuts on major greenhouse gas producers such as China and India. And answers to the more fundamental questions facing the 193 nations that make up the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change - how rich nations can help poor ones cope with the impact of global warming in the near and long term, and to what extent rapidly industrializing countries will allow others to monitor and verify their carbon cuts - remain even more elusive.
"This is a much more important meeting than people give it credit for. We're at the point where the focus of climate policy is shifting, and that requires strong political leadership," said Michael Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He added that "if negotiators don't respect that high-level political decision" forged in Copenhagen, "they're not left with anything, and it takes things in a more marginal direction."
But several delegates from left-leaning countries - such as Pablo Solon, Bolivia's ambassador to the United Nations - question the Copenhagen Accord because it was initially negotiated among just a handful of global heavyweights: the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. "You cannot come up with an agreement of only some countries and impose it on the world," Solon said. "We can have a good outcome, a regular outcome or a bad outcome, but it will be the outcome of all  countries, not the outcome of a small number of countries."
At this point, many participants suggest that negotiators would be best off trying to reach agreement on the less-controversial aspects of a climate deal, including avoiding deforestation, encouraging technology transfer and determining what sort of institution would deliver climate funding to poor countries in the future. Solheim suggested that delegates shouldn't focus on the central points of Copenhagen, the depth of emission cuts and the monitoring of those cuts, because the United States' failure to adopt climate legislation and other developments make it impossible to reach an agreement on these matters.
"Everyone has appealed to the U.S. to be flexible in Cancun. We should agree where we are in agreement, and not wait for the rest," Solheim said. "There is no way we will be able to resolve the monitoring and verification issue [for major developing countries' emissions cuts], as well as we cannot resolve the issue of nonemission reductions in the United States itself."
Luis Alfonso de Alba, Mexico's special representative for climate change, said that, as the host country for this year's talks, his country will push for some advances even if they don't meet the level of global agreement.
"We can go farther and do much better," de Alba said. "But the worst is not to start."
However, U.S. special climate change envoy Todd Stern said the United States is standing firm on its pledge to reduce its emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 even without domestic legislation having passed, and would not endorse any deal in Cancun that did not embody the fundamental political agreement forged last year.
"To say, 'Gosh, it's really hard to do these issues . . . Let's just do the issues we all agree on,' you know what? No. That's not the way we think it works," Stern said. If countries abandon some of the key elements of the Copenhagen Accord, Stern said, they are moving "away from what we agreed to on a leader level."
In recent weeks, key officials have begun to question whether they can pursue a climate deal outside of the U.N. process if it sputters to a halt in Cancun, whether it's through global groupings such as the Group of 20 or the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which brings together 17 major emitters for regular meetings.
Jonathan Pershing, Stern's deputy, told reporters Oct. 6, "The consequences of not having an agreement coming out of Cancun are things that we have to worry about. It doesn't mean that things may not happen; it may mean that we don't use this process exclusively as the way to move forward."
Stern said the United States is open to pursuing other avenues if the process reaches a stalemate, "but our focus is on making progress in the U.N."
Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, warned that other negotiating forums could have their liabilities as well. "Yes, it's easy to see what are the weaknesses in the UNFCCC process, but it is more difficult to say what would be alternatives that would provide a lot of results," she said.
In the meantime some experts such as Rajendra K. Pachauri, who leads the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predict that bilateral agreements - such as one between his native India and the United States - may form the basis for any long-term climate pact.
"My belief right now is we really ought to think in terms of a bottom-up approach," Pachauri said last month by telephone during a news conference. "All of this, in my view, will bubble up and could provide the conditions for a multilateral agreement. But God knows when, because everyone seems to think it's not around the corner."