Mexico's maneuvering could yet save Cancun Summit

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You've got admire Mexico's attempts to "rescue" the UN's climate change negotiations ahead of this year's crucial summit in Cancun. After all, were the hosts of a party to admit it is not going to be much fun, you'd know to start making other arrangements.

Everyone from the UN down has done such an effective job of talking down the prospects for the Mexico Summit that they are in serious danger of turning the whole two week shebang into a high profile exercise in futility. If the Copenhagen Summit was burdened by over-optimism, the Cancun meeting looks set to be completely submerged by a surfeit of pessimism.

Hats off then to Mexico's tireless diplomats, who are currently jetting around the world desperately trying to remind the key players that even if a full blown climate change treaty can not be delivered there are areas where breakthroughs could still be achieved.

Most notably, the diplomats working on so-called REDD plus forestry agreement have been quietly going about their businesses and there are not unreasonable hopes that a workable deal for financing forest protection could be in place by the end of the year.

Similarly, the $30bn of fast track climate financing promised by industrialised countries at the Copenhagen Summit may not have been entirely forthcoming, but there are good reasons to hope that more funding will be announced at Cancun. Just as there are good reasons to hope that the working group looking at long term financing options will deliver a range of workable, if inevitably controversial, proposals for how the world could raise $100bn a year to tackle climate change.

If all goes to plan, Mexico's pragmatic approach of focusing on what might be achieved instead of fixating on the long-standing deadlocks could potentially restore some much needed momentum to the negotiations.

In fact it could even help to deliver what looks increasingly like the best available result from the years of negotiations: namely, a handful of treaties agreed at next year's UN summit in South Africa that formalise countries' various climate change strategies and emissions targets and provide a clear signal to the global economy that the commitment to building a low carbon economy will not waver.

Such an approach would not even get close to the kind of emission reductions that are required and would prompt justifiable howls of outrage from environmentalists and those countries already struggling to cope with climate change. But it looks like the last best hope and would at least have the benefit of ending the crippling uncertainty that continues to stalk global climate policy.

Imagine a scenario where India stated explicitly that it would cut its carbon intensity and fully implement its ambitious Solar Mission with support from a number of industrialised countries within a matter of years. The successful completion of such a bold and ambitious clean energy project in a country that has consistently struggled to deliver large scale infrastructure improvements would be worth its weight in gold - simultaneously helping to bring down costs for solar developers as they scale up production while providing the rest of the developing world with a working case study.

Similarly, a package of international treaties that replicate Brazil's recent successes in improving forest protection, accelerate the EU's renewable energy plans, or even simply codify America's modest pledge to cut emissions would have the benefit of curbing carbon emissions while providing further impetus to the low carbon economy.

It is an absurdly high risk strategy, but the best option currently available is to agree a treaty that does not go nearly far enough while hoping that it provides an economic framework that allows countries to overshoot their inadequate emission reduction targets.

However, even this modest outcome is likely to be beyond negotiators unless the Cancun Summit delivers a marked improvement in relations between industrialised, emerging and developing economies. Mexico's negotiating team has talked a good game on progress towards a deal, but they appear to be on far shakier ground when it comes to engineering a rapprochement between the loosely structured and mutually suspicious groupings that make up the negotiations.

Mexican officials have spent much of the past year reaching out to those developing countries that felt excluded from the Copenhagen Summit and have repeatedly insisted that the Cancun Summit will be a far more equitable affair that will resist any attempt by the US and emerging BASIC powers to hijack proceedings.

This is a morally upstanding and admirably democratic approach. One of the main faults of the UN negotiations to date has been the extent to which the main powers have been able to ignore those poorer countries that will be worst affected by climate change.

However, one of the reasons the Copenhagen Summit boiled down to a handful large economies hammering out an imperfect deal, was because two weeks (or should that be two years) of wider negotiations had delivered nothing more tangible than an unedifying row.

It is easy to see how Mexico's attempts to broaden the reach of the negotiations could result in numerous developing countries lining up to slam the appallingly reckless stance of the US and other industrialised nations - prompting the US negotiating team to dig their heels in still harder. We have already seen a trailer for this scenario at the most recent round of talks in Bonn, where the US team responded to concerted criticism of its position by accusing developing countries of making demands "out of line with reality". In short, Mexico appears to be no closer to bringing an end to the fractious atmosphere that has marred the negotiations since the Copenhagen Summit.

Mexican diplomats are right to talk up the prospects of the Cancun Summit and right to promise that every voice at the table will be heard. But they still face the mother and father of all balancing acts if they are to save the negotiations from collapse.

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