Climate summit in Cancun intent on progress

By Juliet Eilperin and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 7, 2010

CANCUN, MEXICO - The U.N.-sponsored climate talks, which began here a week ago, entered a new phase Monday, as delegates and high-ranking ministers from nearly 200 countries settled into vast, sunless meeting rooms, intent on restoring the credibility of a process aimed at slowing global warming.

While last year's climate talks in Copenhagen produced little despite attracting more than 100 heads of state, some experts suggested this wonkish two-week meeting in a resort better known for college undergrads' drunken excesses could end up laying the groundwork for a future climate agreement.

"In stark contrast to Copenhagen, there's less acrimony, and less ambition and less expectations," said Jennifer Haverkamp, managing director for international climate policy at the Environmental Defense Fund. "Ironically, that seems to have opened the door to some modest progress."

While indigenous groups will march through Cancun's streets Tuesday to challenge the idea of allowing private interests to pay to preserve tropical forests, this year's negotiations lack the drama that defined the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen.

Activists are much fewer in number and have done nothing to disrupt the proceedings.

As several ministers arrived Monday, they and their deputies broke into working groups in an effort to assemble what South Korean climate change ambassador Shin Yeon-sung called "the building blocks" of a broad approach to cutting emissions linked to global warming. These include drafting a framework for compensating developing nations for preserving standing forests; transferring low-carbon technology from developed countries to less-developed ones; and providing billions of dollars to poor nations in both the short and long term so they can adapt to climate impacts and reduce their own emissions.

"We need to focus on the content, rather than talking about the ultimate shape of this agreement," Shin said in an interview, adding that it is now "a given" that any future pact will reflect, rather than dictate, the way individual nations will combat climate change. "We cannot go along with a top-down approach anymore."

One sign of potential movement came Monday when China indicated that it would subject its voluntary carbon cuts to detailed international scrutiny and verification, something the United States has identified as a sticking point. But it remains unclear how this process would be conducted.

Still Todd Stern, America's special climate envoy, said he could envision a broad package of smaller measures in Cancun that would have "genuine balance" between the developed and developing world. Stern reiterated that the Obama administration stands by its commitment to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent compared with 2005 levels, though he cautioned it would take "some legislative component" to reach that goal.

Many negotiators and observers credit Mexico, which is chairing the talks, with helping rebuild some of the trust that eroded last year after the world's largest carbon emitters - including the United States, China, India, Brazil and South Africa - struck a deal in a closed-door meeting that formed the basis of the summit's final agreement, the Copenhagen Accord.

Patricia Espinosa, who is the conference's president, vowed there would be no secret negotiations on her watch. And Sunday she paired a minister from an industrialized and a developing nation to head working groups on each of the key elements of a final agreement.

Still, these efforts have not quieted criticism from left-leaning Latin American delegates who have threatened to derail the talks over several issues, including the fact that any international effort to save rain forests could involve a market mechanism such as trading carbon credits.

Pablo Solon, the Bolivian ambassador to the United Nations, suggested Monday that if the United States and other industrialized countries failed to curb their emissions enough to prevent dangerous climate change, it would be akin to committing mass murder. "Isn't what we are talking about genocide?" he said to reporters.

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