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Low Expectations for Climate Conference to Produce Legally Binding International Accord

As negotiators, nonprofit organizations and activists flock to the luxury resort in droves, serious tensions threaten to derail the process entirely.

Expectations are low that the United Nations’s upcoming two-week climate conference, which kicks off in Cancún, Mexico, today, will produce a legally binding international agreement among the 194 nations in attendance. Nonetheless, negotiators, nonprofit organizations and activists are flocking to the luxury resort in droves.

The climate negotiations in Cancún will seek to achieve four goals: 1. Establish levels of greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions reductions of developed countries, such as the United States; 2. Set ghg reductions for developing countries, such as China and India; 3. Secure funding and technology transfers from developed countries to developing countries, to help them address and adapt to climate change; and 4. Decide on a method to monitor, report and verify (MRV) the agreed upon targets of an international climate treaty.

Nations gathering at the summit have made some progress on these topics leading up to the COP 16. All of the world’s leading emitters have agreed to cut their emissions. Historically, the EU and the US are the biggest emitters. This week, the EU reiterated its commitment to 20 percent ghg emissions reductions by 2020 based on 1990 levels, offering a 30 percent reduction if other nations make matching offers.

Its offer is in line with the reduction targets recommended by most scientific bodies. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, argues that ghgs need to be reduced 20 to 40 percent by 2020 based on 1990 levels, in order to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) over 1990 levels and avert irreversible climate change.

The US’s offer falls far below what’s needed: it’s offering a 17 percent reduction by 2020 levels but based on 2005 levels, which amounts to a measly 3 to 4 percent reduction based on 1990 levels.

Developing nations, such as China and India, have proposed cuts based on their economic growth with China offering a 40 to 45 percent reduction and India pledging a 20 to 25 percent reduction both by 2020 and based on 2005 levels.

This week, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) stated that current pledges are not enough to keep temperatures below 4 degrees by the end of the century.

Developed countries have agreed to provide funding and clean energy technology to developing nations to help them adapt to climate change, such as rising sea levels and increasing desertification, through fast-track and long-term funding. Through last year’s Copenhagen Accord, developed nations agreed to $30 billion in fast track funding for three years between 2010 and 2012, and to $100 billion per year in long-term funding by 2020. These amounts are far less, however, than amounts called for by negotiators from various nation groups, such as the Africa Group, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and LDCs, which are already experiencing the worst impacts of global warming. And to date only 26 percent of the pledged amount has been committed; and only 13 percent has been received.

Yet a bigger cloud looms over the COP 16 that threatens to put a damper on any agreement over ghg reductions, funding pledges and monitoring and reporting of commitments.

In fact, serious tensions threaten to derail the UNFCCC process entirely. At the heart of these skirmishes are two camps: those nations who want to extend the Kyoto Protocol and those nations, including the United States, who want to ram through the Copenhagen Accord.

What are their differences between the two? Drawn up in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol is an international legally binding agreement that is set to expire in 2012. It put forward obligations for ghg emissions, demanding that developed countries, such as the United States and those in the European Union, which have historically been the biggest producers of emissions, lead the way in reductions.

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