This post first appeared on East Asia Forum.

The negotiators at Cancún are currently trying to negotiate a ‘balanced package’ – also known as a ‘six-pack’ – that combines progress on mitigation, transparency (measurement, reporting and verification – or MRV), adaptation, finance, technology, and REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). The Mexicans are extremely determined to get some sort of outcome from the conference – both for the climate and for multilateral negotiations. They so far seem to have been quite confident in the way that they have facilitated the negotiations, and there seems to be much more trust in the Mexicans from Parties than there was for the Danes last year.

What is uncertain is how ‘good’ the decisions will be – in terms of criteria such as ambition (including capacity to ramp up ambition later), efficiency and equity; how detailed the decisions would be; and whether there is sufficient consensus to get a package of decisions at all. Different Parties are interested in progress on different elements of the six-pack, so the total level of progress will be determined by whatever element has the least progress. For example, the United States requires progress on mitigation and transparency in order to support progress on adaptation, finance, technology and REDD+.

There are two tracks to the negotiations: one track is focused on further commitments under the Kyoto Protocol for ‘Annex I parties’ (which consists of developing countries, but does not include many countries that could be considered ‘developed’ such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore); the other track is focused on implementing the Bali Action Plan – that covers the six-pack described above. Developing countries (including China) have stated that for an agreement, they require progress on a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. There could be progress on ‘technical’ aspects of the Kyoto Protocol – such as new gases, surplus emission allocations, and accounting for forest management. But Japan has now stated clearly what many have already known – that they do not intend to inscribe their target into the second commitment period. If this issue is not resolved, it could cause a potential deal to unravel.

Below is a summary of where things are at in the six-pack:

  • On mitigation, key questions are how to anchor pledges that were part of the Copenhagen accord, and what could be done later to increase ambition. Points of contention include how developed country commitments relate to the Kyoto Protocol and the nature of developing country commitments. China has said that it would submit its emission reductions as a binding UN resolution – but this is conditional on progress on a second commitment period to the Kyoto Protocol. Todd Stern has described China’s announcement as nothing new.
  • There is some information on transparency in the negotiating text, but the United States want more detail. The Indian Environment Minister Jayram Ramesh has put forward a proposal, but it is uncertain how much support there is for it from major developing countries.
  • On adaptation, there is relatively clean text. But some countries (including Saudi Arabia) want adaptation to be linked to ‘response measures’, which essentially means that as well as assisting countries with adapting to the effects of climate change, oil exporting countries would somehow be compensated for lost fossil fuel revenue.
  • On finance, a major point of debate has been the establishment of a fund, that was called for as part of the Copenhagen Accord. Some countries wanted it established at Cancún, but others argue that time will be needed to set it up and that it should instead be set up in the period between Cancún and the negotiations next year in Durban, South Africa. Areas of discussion include the transitional committee to set it up, the operating entity of the fund, and its relationship to the World Bank. Australia’s Minister Combet has been involved with consultations on finance.
  • On technology, there is clean text, but the United States is likely to block progress if they do not see progress on other issues.
  • The text on REDD+ is largely complete, with most of the remaining areas of disagreement (mainly on the role of market mechanisms) expressed as clear options.

The Mexican Foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, stated on Wednesday December 8 that an ambitious and broad package of decisions is within reach but we no not have it in our grasp. We are now in the final stage of negotiations, where the final political issues need to be resolved, and negotiators may not get much sleep. If nearly 200 countries can come up with an ambitious and broad package of decisions, it will be a major success in diplomacy that could rejuvenate the UN process.

The next UN climate conference, the 16th Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC, will commence on November 29 in Cancun, Mexico. ClimateDilemma will be attending these talks, will blog about what is going on, and also provide more up-to-minute updates via Twitter.

The stage was set at some negotiations earlier this year in Tianjin, China. It is unlikely that there will be anything like a comprehensive legally binding climate protocol emerge from Cancun, so the focus instead is on a “balanced set of decisions” on issues such as finance, adaptation, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, technology, and possibly measurement, reporting and verification (transparency). The key stumbling block is agreement between the US and China on these issues. These difficulties were illustrated when in response to a speech by US Special Envoy on Climate Change Todd Stern, Chinese negotiator Su Wei referred to the US as what has been translated as a “pig preening itself in a mirror“.

As has been pointed out by Angel Hsu from Yale, this reference is to the character Zhu Ba Jie, from the Chinese novel Journey to the West. A well known television adaptation in some western countries is the show Monkey, a dubbed version of a Japanese television series. This will be particularly well known to Australians who grew up in the 1980’s (such as myself), when the show was very popular. In Monkey, Zhu Ba Jie is known as “Pigsy”.


Pigsy, portayed by Toshiyuki Nishida, from the opening credits for "Monkey"

Todd Stern’s speech made a number of salient points about the negotiations, but downplayed the problem of lack of US domestic progress. Lack of domestic progress is a major issue – the World Resources Institute has done a study investigating how much state-based approaches and regulation could reduce emissions without national legislation, and their most ambitious scenario has emissions lowered by 12 percent, which falls short of the 17 percent commitment. Stern also summarised the US negotiating position which is to not support action on “financing, technology, adaptation and forests” unless there is progress on mitigation and transparency.

Todd Stern made several comments that relate to China:

  • He stated that “you cannot build a system premised on the notion that China should be treated the same as Chad” and made some comments on China’s emission statistics;
  • He pointed out the “political reality” that it would be impossible to get support from US congress for an agreement that required action from the US but not from China and emerging markets;
  • He stated that in Tianjin, “Chinese negotiators have acted almost as though the Accord never happened, insisting on legally binding commitments for developed countries and purely voluntary actions for even the emerging markets”. He also stated that Chinese negotiators have merely listed their targets as a “fyi”, with “no political commitment to implement them”.

Stern’s statement that China should not be treated the same as Chad does bring up an important point about the way developed and developing countries are divided up in the Kyoto Protocol. The developed countries are specified as “Annex I Parties” which includes relatively poor countries such as Turkey, but does not include very rich countries including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It also does a mediocre job of distinguishing between different levels of per-capita emissions – Australia and the US have far higher per-capita emissions than France, and the highest per-capita emitter, Qatar, is not an Annex I country. The Kyoto Protocol has no mechanism non-Annex I countries to automatically become Annex I countries.

But the key issue is not so much whether emission reduction commitments are legally binding, it is whether countries will meet those commitments. Stern points this out in his speech, and so it is curious that Stern attaches so much attention to the legal status of China’s commitments. China is quick to point out that their targets are not legally binding, and stated in their Copenhagen Accord submission that “please note that the above-mentioned autonomous domestic mitigation actions are voluntary in nature”. China is perhaps more likely to meet its target than the US, and China has been implementing measures such as blackouts and slashing steel production in order to meet its domestic energy intensity target. So Stern’s statement that “Chinese negotiators have acted as though the Accord never happened” is not very fair. The other key issue is the ambition of the commitments themselves – an international agreement must be designed in such a way that the ambition of commitments can be readily ramped up – Kyoto has failed to do this, with countries preferring to take on weak targets and sell “hot air” (when countries – such as Russia – get allocated emission targets that are greater than business as usual emissions).

The largest barrier is Congress, in particular the US Senate. Ratifying a treaty requires 67 out of 100 votes, and even getting the Senate to vote on legislation requires 60. The US failed to pass climate legislation last year because it couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate. If any institution was to resemble Pigsy, it would be the US Senate. But there have been failure at the White House as well: it made major strategic blunders when climate legislation was before the Senate; and failed spectacularly when it comes to framing and messaging, including on climate change. Congress is difficult because the Republicans are taking an extremist denialist position, but this could be politically damaging to the Republicans and untenable if the White House and/or the Democrats put pressure on the Republicans over climate change and framed the issue to be one of Republican obstruction, instead of one of “Democrats seeking bipartisanship”.

Issues with Congress and the strategic US-China relationship mean that there is little prospect for a fair legally binding and ambitious ‘top-down’ agreement in the near future, and that probably means the next decade. Since Copenhagen, the challenge is to ramp up emission reductions in a ‘bottom-up’ world, and turn political commitments into political action. We know from implementation theory and literature on private provision of public goods that if countries can commit to increase their reductions if others do the same, then a situation that is previously a “prisoner’s dilemma” becomes transformed into a situation where there is likely to be a cooperative outcome. Furthermore, if there is an expectation that there will be a legally binding agreement in the future that is fair, high per-capita emitters will have a strong incentive now to start reducing their emissions.

Progress in Cancún on transparency, financing, technology, adaptation and forests could ultimately facilitate cooperation on mitigation. One reason for optimism is that developing countries including India have made concrete proposals on measurement, reporting and verification (i.e. transparency), so the key reason for obstruction from the US may be resolved. But anything can happen in these negotiations, so only time will tell.