from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Is There a Plan B for Cancun?

December 7, 2010

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The United States framed the agenda for the Cancun climate talks last month when it called for a “balanced” outcome from the negotiations. By that, it meant that it wanted to see progress on all key elements of the Copenhagen Accord. Most countries accepted that as a guiding principle for the talks, even if they were skeptical of its wisdom. But after eight days, with tensions remaining over transparency rules and the future of the Kyoto protocol, it is unclear whether a balanced outcome is possible. The official line from most negotiators remains unchanged, and optimism has picked up in the past day, but in the background, there is an inevitable question: if a balanced outcome proves impossible, is there any alternative?

In one sense, I don’t see any way that the United States can budge from its demand for a balanced outcome. The Copenhagen Accord, which the United States remains a fan of, was a delicate political deal, and moving forward on only part of it would undermine its integrity. In particular, that means that a standalone deal on money for developing countries – probably the most important element to the developing countries here in Cancun – is impossible (and unwise).

But there are other areas that weren’t at the core of the Copenhagen Accord that might, as a result, be candidates for discrete progress.

The first, and in some ways simplest, is warming agents other than carbon dioxide. People refer to this as the “Non-CO2” agenda. HFCs, ozone, black carbon, and methane are all potent contributors to global warming, and reducing emissions of any of them is much cheaper and in many ways simpler than cutting carbon dioxide. Moreover, since these species (other than HFCs) don’t stay in the atmosphere for a long time, cutting them now could help avoid climate tipping points. And since they aren’t addressed by the Copenhagen Accord, moving forward on this file without broader progress wouldn’t really undermine the Accord’s balance. The main danger on this one, I’m told, is that it could engender a backlash, since some see it as a way to avoid taking responsibility for carbon dioxide emissions.

The second candidate for separate action is the effort to avoid deforestation, which contributes a substantial fraction of global carbon dioxide emissions. There’s been significant progress here, and many believe that a deal is doable. And while forests are mentioned in the Copenhagen Accord, they aren’t a core part of that deal, which means that movement here could potentially come without prejudice to the ultimate fate of the Accord. The big problem is that the form of the deal – big sums of money in exchange for pledges not to cut down forests – mirrors the basic Copenhagen deal in many ways, and may play very badly in the United States.

The last area that might be separable – and this is a stretch – is technology. There’s been a lot of talk about setting up centers to support the innovation and diffusion of climate-friendly technology in the developing world. This is pretty much a no brainer, since it can benefit inventors and businesses in both the developed and developing worlds, all while helping address climate change. But while it wasn’t featured in the Copenhagen Accord, technology has always been a core element of the climate talks, making negotiators considerably more reluctant to give on this front without making progress on the others.

It’s too early, of course, to write off a balanced (if inevitably modest) outcome from the talks. And any action of one of these standalone areas without broader progress could kill whatever momentum the Copenhagen Accord has left. That said, I wouldn’t count these possibilities out.

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