7 december 2010

Pressure rises on climate negotiators

By Fiona Harvey in Cancún Financial Times, December 7 2010

In every room where delegates at the Cancún climate change talks gather for private meetings, they huddle uncomfortably round a wooden-topped table with marble sides. The “table” does not seem cut out for such work – and nor is it. In real life, this is an ornate marble whirlpool bath, there for the pleasure of guests in the hotel rooms of this enormous beachside leisure complex, the Moon Palace, that has been pressed into service as a conference centre.

For negotiators here to trawl through the acres of half-formed text that constitute the world’s best hope of a treaty to tackle global warming, the whirlpool baths and the swimming pools, the golf courses and the beach might as well be on the moon. Most of the delegations, in the suites that are usually home to pleasure-seeking North American holidaymakers, have been issued with stern instructions forbidding them from being seen in swimsuits while their governments impose austerity measures at home and grapple with the recession.

For the past week, and until Friday night, these sun-drenched suites are instead the unlikely scene of backroom deals and shifty betrayals, as more than 180 of the world’s governments wrangle over how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while avoiding financial burdens.

At stake, as the scientists keep reminding attendees, is whether the world warms by a just-about manageable 2°C – regarded by researchers as the limit of safety, beyond which climate change becomes irreversible and catastrophic – or by as much as 4°, which on current emissions trends would be the likeliest outcome. A world 4° warmer, they predict, would be scarred by droughts, floods, famine, mass migration and conflict.

Last year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen resulted in an accord that for the first time bound both rich countries and the biggest emerging economies to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

But that accord was only reached amid scenes of chaos and acrimony, and in the end could not be fully adopted by the UN because of legal technicalities, and the refusal of a handful of small developing countries – chiefly Bolivia, Venezuela and Sudan – to agree.

As a result, the UN process – and these negotiations have been going on under the UN since 1988 – is in crisis. This year’s talks cannot result in a treaty: there is too much work to do and all participants agree that a treaty, or failing that a comprehensive agreement, can come only next year or in 2012.

But the risk is that if this year’s talks descend into the open warfare seen at Copenhagen, then the UN process will be abandoned. The major players are talking in private – and sometimes more openly – of continuing negotiations independently, in that case.

Connie Hedegaard, the European Union’s climate change commissioner, told the Financial Times: “We should take care that we don’t end up in a situation where the UN process continues but it does not get the necessary attention and interest, or countries are represented at a lower level [than that of ministers].”

There are reasons to be optimistic. This year’s talks, which began nine days ago and end on Friday, have been peaceable and marked by a spirit of co-operation. Many participants have attributed this to the deft handling of the negotiations by the Mexican hosts.

But none of the negotiators are under any illusions. Unless a deal can be reached next year, or at the latest by 2012, then the UN process will be defunct. So far the world has no alternatives.

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