Climate: 5 Ways of Looking at the UN Climate Summit in Cancun

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Soeren Bidstrup / AFP / Getty

It’s the most wonderful time of the year once more for environment reporters: the UN climate summit. Last year’s affair in Copenhagen was a frigid disaster, mostly a failure for the climate—but at least the food was terrible. Beginning on November 29, diplomats from more than 190 countries will spend two weeks (plus overtime) trying to pick up the pieces in the Mexican resort city of Cancun. I’ll be headed down for the last few days of the summit, but in the meantime, here’s a rundown of the major issues that will be up for debate in Mexico:

CopenCun: That’s what World Resources Institute president Jonathan Lash has called the upcoming meetings, because Cancun first needs to deal with the hangover from the Copenhagen Accord, signed at the last-minute last December. The Accord was drafted as a way to sidestep the problem of dividing up emissions reductions, which has plagued international climate negotiations for nearly two decades. Instead of agreeing to mandatory emissions cuts, the Accord lets countries—developed and developing alike—declare what they’ll do on a national level and share that with the world. (So the U.S. declares that it will cut emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, while China pledges to reduce its energy intensity 40 to 45% from a 2005 baseline.) Washington, which was the main force behind the Accord, rightfully argues that the pact marks the first time major developing nations, as well as rich countries, have committed themselves to climate actions, even if they aren’t binding. Still, it’s a big step down from the dream of a global carbon market—and a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme found that even if every country fulfilled its pledges, it would only represent 60% of the carbon cuts needed to keep warming from reaching dangerous levels.

Here’s the problem though—it’s not even clear those promise will be fulfilled. China had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Accord, mostly because it opposed the American insistence that all pledges be “measurable, reportable and verifiable.” While China has moved forward with green actions—aggressively investing in renewable power and energy efficiency—it has steadfastly resisted making those efforts binding on the international level. At the same time with cap-and-trade dead and a Republican House, it’s far from clear how the U.S. will even live up to its own promises. If this isn’t settled at Cancun, the Accord could be headed for discord.

Kyo-yes or Kyo-no: Americans usually try to forget this—mostly because they never ratified it—but there actually is a global climate agreement already in effect. The Kyoto Protocol commits developed nations who have ratified the pact to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a collective 5.2% from 1990 levels. By most measures, the Kyoto Protocol hasn’t been very successful. Global carbon emissions keep rising, and some signatories like Canada have almost totally ignored their commitments. Still, it’s the only global agreement on carbon emissions currently in effect—even if it doesn’t include the U.S.—but it expires in 2012, leaving its fate up in the air.

The U.S.—which has long viewed Kyoto as inherently flawed because it doesn’t include developing nations—wants Kyoto to die out quietly. Washington has a point—fair or not, the vast majority of future carbon emissions will come from developing nations, and any pact that doesn’t include them will do little to slow climate change. (International Energy Agency officials recently pointed out that if the European Union were to increase its carbon cuts from 20% to 30% by 2020, the difference would only represent two weeks of Chinese carbon emissions.) But much of the rest of the world—especially India—is still devoted to the ideals of the Kyoto Protocol, arguing that climate change is historically the fault of developed nations, and they should fix it. Expect that debate to overshadow Cancun—and every U.N. climate summit that follows.

Can We Avoid Deforestation: One bright spot at the Copenhagen summit was the progress made by negotiators on REDD, or reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. Forests store approximately 25% of the carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, and the destruction of forests—especially in the tropics—accounts for 12 to 17% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Negotiators behind REDD—also known as avoided deforestation—are looking for ways to compensate tropical countries for keeping their trees standings, most likely by wrapping up such forests into a carbon market. Not only would that reduce global carbon emissions, it would help save rainforests that are the foundation for much of the world’s biodiversity. If anything in the climate sphere is win win, it’s this.

Negotiators still have to work out the final details, though they’re getting close. There are already pilot programs working at the U.N. level, and developed countries have pledged $4 billion towards REDD. The stage is set for a REDD agreement in Cancun—the only thing that might hold it back is everything else. Washington in particular seems opposed to signing onto REDD in the absence of what it views as a more balanced global agreement, and there’s no guarantee that will be forthcoming at Cancun. Still, with a Latin American country like Mexico hosting the summit, you can bet that tropical nations will push to make REDD happen.

Show Us the Money: Notwithstanding Obama’s personal diplomacy on the final day, the Copenhagen summit would have truly collapsed had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not earlier announced support for $30 billion by 2012 in fast track climate financing, plus longer-term public and private financing for $100 billion a year by 2020. That promise helped peel off poorer developing nations in Africa and Asia from a Chinese-led opposition block at Copenhagen, and paved the way for the Accord.

There’s just one problem: the money actually has to materialize. Developed countries have already shown on paper that they can meet their $30 billion commitment for Fast Start Financing by 2012, although it’s not like the money is waiting in a Swiss bank account for developing nations to withdraw. The bigger concerns though will be over the longer-term $100 billion number, which will assist developing nations in carbon mitigation and even more importantly, climate adaptation. (With every year the world fails to curb carbon emissions, adaptation will become ever more vital.) A report this month from the U.N. Secretary-General found that reaching the $100 billion target was “challenging but feasible,” and would require private investment along with money from carbon allowances or taxes. But where will that come from? Cap-and-trade in the U.S. was meant to generate money for climate finance, but that’s dead, while Tea Party Republicans have the foreign aid budget squarely in their sights. Failure to deliver on climate finance, more than anything else, could sink the U.N. climate process.

What Exactly Are We Doing Here: After Copenhagen ended and I staggered home, I had one thought: the U.N. process was finished. From beginning to end, it was fraught with trouble. More than 190 countries take part in the U.N. climate summits, and all of them—from gigantic Russia to tiny Tuvalu—have to reach consensus for anything to get done. That allowed rogue countries like Bolivia and Venezuela to block the Copenhagen Accord from final approval (or, to flip it around, rogue countries like the U.S. to stand in the way of stronger action). Given that a relatively small number of big countries are responsible for most of the carbon emissions on the planet, it seemed like more progress might be able to be made in smaller forums—just as was done in arms control—rather than the entire U.N.

That’s not necessarily true. If any threat is a truly global, it is global warming, and the U.N. summits give the smaller countries that are most vulnerable to climate change a rare voice. They won’t give that up easily—and they shouldn’t. But you may see countries—especially the U.S.—pushing for bilateral or multilateral climate pacts, rather than waiting for the entire world to get its act together. (A similar shift has already occurred on global free trade talks, which have been almost as dysfunctional as climate negotiations.) The G-20, the World Trade Organization, the G-8—those forums could provide a more realistic platform for moving climate action along, though they’re already stuffed with other issues. If more progress isn’t made at Cancun, this could be the last stand for the UNFCCC.

See also from TIME:

What Now for Our Feverish Planet?