What to Expect at the Cancun Climate Talks

Cancun in November seems a better venue for a climate change conference than frigid Copenhagen in December (any one wonder the Copenhagen talks had been held in mid-July in Mumbai, if the outcome would've been different? "Man, it's so hot in India, global warming must be an urgent issue!").

Joking aside, the Cancun talks open this week, in the hopes of making modest progress on the accord established in Denmark. It would be an understatement to say that expectations for Cancun are muted. From my colleague and climate change analyst Divya Reddy:

In direct contrast to last year's UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, this year's summit in Cancun, Mexico is marked by strikingly low expectations. In part, the Copenhagen hangover still looms over multilateral negotiations and weak global economic conditions continue to plague the talks. In addition, little hope for concrete US policy action will likely stall any prospects for eventually reaching an international treaty. However, the Mexican organizers have kept expectations deliberately low in order to avoid a redux of the finger-pointing and loss of confidence that led many to brand Copenhagen a failure. Therefore, the primary aim of the Cancun talks will be to prevent a complete derailment of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). To this modest end, the talks will be a success--but only just so. Little progress on substantive issues is likely to be made, nor will meaningful movement toward a plan B for a framework come about. The longer term viability of the international process will probably give way to national action plans over time, with a more modest international framework for areas like offsets and adaptation financing.

Ok, so not the brightest prospects this time around, but still some modest movements achievable?

In terms of substantive issues, some progress could be achieved at Cancun on financing for developing countries to undertake mitigation and adaptation measures. The Copenhagen Accord set out a target of disbursing $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020. However, mechanisms for raising this money and how much of it should come from public funding from industrialized countries remain in question. The Mexican organizers of the Cancun summit hope to debate proposals for a Green Fund through which financing could be distributed. While finalizing funding mechanisms is unlikely at Cancun, agreement on some parameters for a fund could be made. However, fiscal austerity measures in industrialized countries and ongoing economic stagnation will limit the ability to tap either public or private sources of financing. Proposals for raising money through carbon levies on certain global industries like shipping and aviation are not likely to amount to anything.

Another area where there is general agreement among countries is on the need to include forestry measures in the UNFCCC framework. However, concurrence on the details is less obvious. Controversy continues to surround accounting for cutting down trees in calculating a country's carbon footprint as well as how to account for emissions offset credits from avoided deforestation or reforestation, given the large amounts of avoided emissions the sector could generate. Again, finalizing all aspects of deforestation emissions is not likely, but determining some principles for a framework could be accomplished...

...Nonetheless, Cancun is likely to achieve its most limited goal of keeping the UNFCCC process alive. Most participants are already looking past Cancun to next year's summit in South Africa. However, even next year, the US is not likely to have climate legislation to back its commitments, which elevates the risk of yet another lackluster summit, despite the potential for a stronger global economy to lift momentum for emissions cuts. The 2012 summit might face a better outlook for agreeing on a plan B for an international framework (depending on shifts in the US political climate) due to pressure from the impending expiration of the Kyoto Protocol. More likely, however, the international process--while probably preserved in name--will over time give way to national action plans on climate change, with a more modest international framework for areas like offsets and adaptation financing...

Despite having been dubbed the spoiler in Copenhagen, China should be legitimately commended for thus far not backing down from its national-level plans and climate mitigation targets. Its game plan heading into Cancun seems to be largely about avoiding the "spoiler" designation again. Here's a guest dispatch from Angel Hsu of Yale University (who has previously contributed to this blog) presenting another perspective on what China is doing. Hsu will be live-blogging and tweeting (@ecoangelhsu) at Cancun.

China stepping up to the plate?

Last week, the Chinese government officially recognized - for the first time - its position as the top global emitter of greenhouse gases. Vice Minister of the National Development and Reform Commission and China's top climate official, Xie Zhenhua told reporters at a press briefing, "Our emissions volume now stands at number one in the world." [my comment: this is a notably different tone than the one China took when it disputed IEA figures on Chinese energy consumption earlier this year.] The fact that the government via Minister Xie made this announcement on the eve of Cancun reflects China's acceptance of its contribution to global climate change and recognition that action on its part is critical to the success of the negotiations. From controversial accusations after last year's Copenhagen climate talks that China had "wrecked the Copenhagen deal," the country that became last year's fall guy has worked diligently this past year to demonstrate that they don't intend on taking the heat for any potential "failures" in Cancun. China has done this by reaffirming their commitment to reduce carbon intensity 40 to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, through a submission to Appendix II of the Copenhagen Accord and domestically through adoption of the target into national law.

To place Xie's admission on Chinese emissions in context, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency reported in 2007 that China had surpassed US CO2 emissions by eight percent in 2006, which meant that China had taken the top spot earlier than the 2007 or 2008 IEA prediction. In the short five years I've worked on China climate change and energy-related projects, I've witnessed a complete revolution with regards to the government's attitude toward climate change - from unwillingness to even mention climate change in the context of energy efficiency projects to the announcement of a national climate change plan in 2007. As recently as last year when working with China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, my Western colleagues and I were asked to not include any references to China's position as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. [my comment: this rings true to me as well--that the concept of climate change has been duly accepted by policymakers. However, acknowledgment of climate change doesn't necessarily mean that this becomes the overriding concern in all Chinese energy/economic policy making. In fact, I would argue that many Chinese energy policies are not climate change-based per se, but are a result of many different factors and interests. But if implemented as desired, the policies would have a positive effect on climate mitigation. I would say that an important development has been that the view on energy security has increasingly converged with climate change/efficiency efforts, which can generate more aggressive policies down the road.]

So, while China has stepped up to the plate, what will be its strategy in Cancun? As an outsider to the process, I can only speculate based on what I observed this last year from Copenhagen toward Cancun and what we've heard Chinese officials say thus far. In general, China will act in their domestic interests, which center on energy security, economic development, clean energy, and climate mitigation technologies. At the same time, China is engaging internationally in these talks as a leader amongst developing countries on climate change. But as much as they've led by example, China is still putting the onus on developed countries to bring comparable mitigation efforts and financial assistance to developing countries.

Here's a brief breakdown on where China stands on some of the key issues:

  • On the Kyoto Protocol: China would like to maintain negotiations in a two-track, parallel process that preserves the Kyoto Protocol by potentially agreeing upon a second commitment period beyond 2012 for developed or Annex I parties, while at the same time moving forward discussions on an agreement for Long-term Cooperative Action (LCA), which follows from the 2007 UN negotiations in Bali. China views the Copenhagen Accord as a "guiding political document."

  • On technology transfer: China says that talks will succeed only if developed countries ensure technology transfer to developing countries, preferably through a formalized mechanism under the UNFCCC and the Conference of Parties (COP).

  • On financial assistance to developing countries: China is taking a "hard line" with regards to developed countries meeting their obligations to provide aid to developing countries in adapting to the consequences of climate change, but at the same time willing to "make concessions." It remains to be seen during the next two weeks what exactly these concessions will be, considering the Chinese have already ruled out the possibility of any attempts by developed countries to tie climate aid to its acceptance of tighter international checks - or measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) - of its greenhouse gas emissions. Considering MRV of China's domestic climate actions was particularly key for the U.S. during Copenhagen last year, I wonder if this isn't a preemptive tactic on the part of the Chinese to dispel any initial attempts for bargaining. Then again, the U.S. ruled out China as a recipient for its climate aid, and China also recognized it wasn't first in line for financing anyways, saying the funding should absolutely go to least-developed countries and small-island states first.

  • On MRV: Predictably, the issue of MRV and transparency of Chinese emissions data was a central issue in the Tianjin intersessional talks last month. It didn't seem like China was walking away from its pledges to "international consultation and analysis" (ICA) of their domestic climate mitigation actions, however vague the promises were. In Cancun, there might be potential to break the MRV deadlock, however, as India presented a proposal to the Major Economies Forum that provides clarity to what ICA would entail. Environment Minister Ramesh Jairam proposed that ICA would take place under the UN auspices once every two to three years for countries with a share of global emissions in excess of 1 percent and be funded by an international mechanism rather than the country itself. All other countries would report once every 4 to 5 years. While China has yet to formulate a position on this proposal, India has been a close ally to China since the talks in Copenhagen and it wouldn't be surprising if China supports India's proposal in Cancun next week.

With a new legally-binding deal off the table far in advance, our main hope is that the outcome of Cancun will be a set of "fair and balanced package of decisions" on key issues and the preservation of the UNFCCC process itself so that countries stay engaged. Nonetheless, regardless of what may or may not come out of Cancun, what we can expect is that countries - including China - will continue to address climate change.

While I think Hsu is mostly right on China's demonstrable commitment to many of the policies it has laid out, particularly as part of the 12th Five-Year Plan, demonstrating commitment is still not quite the same as executing on that commitment. The kinds of policies and measures China will employ on the execution side will be covered more extensively in future posts. So watch this space and stay tuned.