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Low-Octane Climate Talks

Negotiations: Meeting in Mexico expected to produce only modest agreements

by Cheryl Hogue
November 29, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 48

Credit: Newscom
Figueres (left) and Espinosa discuss climate change.
Credit: Newscom
Figueres (left) and Espinosa discuss climate change.

Two weeks of United Nations climate-change talks are set to begin on Nov. 29 in Cancún, Mexico, with negotiators seeking modest agreements that will not place specific restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.

Expectations for the Cancún meeting are restrained in contrast to the extensive buildup for the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen that failed to produce a long-expected new global climate treaty. This past summer, negotiators gave up trying to complete a pact this year that specifies how much countries should control their greenhouse gas emissions and by when (C&EN, Aug. 23, page 26).

What’s likely to come out of the Cancún talks, which run through Dec. 10, is a package of agreements on four issues. One is a program to help developing countries install low-carbon-emitting energy technologies. Another would assist poor, vulnerable nations in adapting to the predicted impacts of climate change, such as sea-level rise. A third is a deal to reduce deforestation and protect woodlands in the developing world. Finally, governments are expected to create a fund to help developing countries address climate change in the long term.

The weak global economy makes countries hesitant to commit to restrictions on their greenhouse gas emissions, says Patricia Espinosa, Mexico’s secretary of foreign affairs, who is presiding over the Cancún meeting. “But bleaker times lie ahead if we keep delaying the necessary decisions” to combat climate change, she says.

Countries are not expected to come to an agreement on several contentious issues left unresolved since the Copenhagen talks, including the measurement, reporting, and verification of voluntary emissions restrictions by developing countries such as China.

The Cancún talks are also seen as a test of whether UN-sponsored negotiations on climate change remain viable. Some observers suggest that discussions might be more fruitful if they are limited to countries responsible for most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“A Cancún deal isn’t going to solve the whole problem” of climate change, says Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top global-warming official. “But it can set a new pace for negotiations, where governments lock in better agreements every year.”



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