The following is cross-posted from Reuters AlertNet.
It seems a familiar story, these days: while heat waves break historical records and we suffer more of the floods, hurricanes and droughts that experts warn will only increase with climate change, the United Nations climate negotiations come and go with few expectations and even fewer constructive outcomes.
So it is not surprising to those following the climate talks that the recent meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Tianjin, China, sputtered to a close, highlighting deep-seated disagreements that continue to impede progress.
Late next month, ministers from the nearly 200 countries of the United Nations convene in Cancún, Mexico, to take up issues left unresolved in last year's Copenhagen talks. But their senior negotiators have managed to run out the 2010 clock through repeated unproductive negotiating sessions resembling a Bill Murray "Groundhog Day" movie plot.
(On the positive side, Tianjin's talks were the first that China has hosted, reflecting a more serious engagement by that country in the process.)
In Copenhagen's wake, countries should be motivated to rebuild confidence in the U.N. process by delivering concrete results at Cancún's Conference of Parties (COP-16). But instead, countries are still struggling with some major overall structural issues, and have made disappointing progress on important forestry and land-use policies.
Now it's unclear whether their negotiators will be able to rise far enough above these issues by Cancún to produce a meaningful outcome.
Historical problems stymieing progress
Since the 2007 Bali conference (COP-13), countries have locked themselves in two separate negotiating tracks, often with developing and developed countries pitted against each other. Now they find themselves groping for the keys to bring these tracks together.
The negotiations have also been plagued by distracting bickering among major players, and troubling progress – or lack thereof – in critical policies.
Much attention recently has been given to policies regarding deforestation and land-use practices like forestry, ranching and wetland restoration. Setting a troubling precedent, the parties appear poised to finalize in Cancún accounting rules for emissions from forest management that would allow developed countries to claim carbon credits or avoid debits without changing their activities.
Although negotiators spent the week in Tianjin crafting a mechanism to make this accounting method more transparent, the review process would do little more than make a bad approach transparently bad.
Similarly disappointing is the lack of progress in the REDD-plus Partnership, which 50 countries launched in May 2010 to provide billions of dollars toward reducing deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) in developing countries. It's particularly dismaying that a process launched with such high hopes earlier this year is being bogged down by debates over procedural hurdles.
REDD policies are crucial, since deforestation and forest degradation account for 15 to 17 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Donor countries must stop dickering and start releasing the funding needed for this partnership to make REDD-plus a reality.
Global talks not the only way forward
Success in Cancún will be measured by adoption of a strong and balanced set of decisions, as well as a work plan for a way forward to South Africa's COP in December 2011. Cancún must put us back on a track to an eventual comprehensive approach to reducing global emissions and achieving climate safety.
But to reach climate safety, we may not be able to wait on the U.N. process. We're in a critical period: emissions must start to decline between now and 2020.
While efforts toward a comprehensive approach are being made, it is incumbent on major emitters – as well as on other areas like shipping and aviation that don't fit neatly into individual countries' responsibilities – to begin now the shift to a low carbon economy.
And while it is easy to make the UNFCCC process the scapegoat for the current paralyzed state the negotiations are in, it's highly doubtful that simply shifting the talks to another forum would resolve the problem.
Until major economies are prepared to put in the hard work needed to find genuine solutions for all parties, countries will continue treading water, no matter which forum's banner hangs over the conference center.