To hear climate change negotiators describe it, this week's U.N. global warming summit in Cancun, Mexico, is shaping up like a confab of homebuilders.
Delegates say they are "laying foundations," setting up "frameworks" and installing the "building blocks" for a future treaty.
They might also need a bomb shelter. Analysts say a blast is ready to detonate, and it's called the Kyoto Protocol.
"It is one of those issues that could blow up in a toxic way," one British climate diplomat told ClimateWire.
As negotiators from 192 countries descend on the Latin American city, best known for its sandy, white beaches and spring break nightlife, many delegates still carry the bitterness of last year's contentious climate conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. At the same time, participants insist, they spent much of 2010 trying to repair the rifts and are ready to get to work.
Most say the goal is a "balanced package": that is, taking the promises that President Obama and other world leaders made in Copenhagen to cut carbon, create a global oversight system, protect tropical forests, infuse vulnerable countries with cash and help spur low-carbon growth around the world and trying to craft the formal U.N. decisions that will make those things happen.
Building blocks or stumbling blocks?
It's not an easy task. America's priority is establishing transparency measures that China and others will agree to. Developing countries say they are focused on setting in motion funding for vulnerable countries -- something America won't move on until China agrees to some form of reliable third-party inspection system.
Looming over all of that is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the landmark 1997 treaty that mandated that industrialized nations slash the greenhouse gas emissions heating up the planet.
"There are clearly sharp divisions over the ultimate legal form of an agreement," said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"What the negotiating mandate should be could be a stumbling block at the end of the day," Meyer said. "I think [negotiators] are trying to think of a way to finesse this, but it could be one of the scenarios you see play out Friday night into Saturday morning on the last night [of the conference]. That would be a dire scenario, but it could come to play."
The United States signed but never ratified Kyoto because the treaty didn't demand that China or other emerging powers also cut emissions. But the failure this year of Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation -- along with the election in November of a far more conservative House and Senate -- make it less likely, analysts say, that America will ratify any U.N. treaty.
U.S. envoy Todd Stern certainly isn't buying that. At a recent press conference, he said that America is "standing behind the pledge" of cutting emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels in the next decade and said the long-term goal is a legally binding treaty that allows industrialized and developing countries to take different types of targets but holds them all to the same legal requirements.
Developing countries, though, are openly suspicious.
Seeing question marks in U.S. position
"The elections in the United States put a lot of questions in the minds of countries," Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk told ClimateWire recently. "What can the U.S. bring to the table? And how does it transmit that into action by the U.S. Congress? It's not that we don't trust the United States, but action speaks louder than words" (ClimateWire, Nov. 16).
Not knowing what a new agreement might look like -- or having any assurance that the U.S. Congress will even agree to it if one emerges -- many developing countries say they'd like to stick with the treaty they've already got: Kyoto.
Several countries said extending that treaty past 2012 is a top priority, and one they want to address in Cancun. Some governments, like that of Japan, openly oppose the idea. Others, like the European Union, are open to the possibility -- but say they would prefer to work on what they call "practical" issues this year and agree to work out the tougher nut of the treaty's legal form down the road.
Stern acknowledged that the fight could bog down talks over the next two weeks. "There are a number of things that could derail this negotiation, and that's one of them," he said. But a few days later, speaking to the foreign press corps in Washington, he struck a more optimistic note.
"I don't think that those process concerns are going to flare up, and I think that the reason is that the Mexican team that has been working on this all year ... has been extraordinarily focused on preventing precisely that."
Likewise, U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres, speaking to ClimateWire while in Washington last week for the Major Economies Forum, said she's not overly worried.
"Governments are looking at all facets of this. There's not going to be a conclusive answer on that, but it also will not be ignored in Cancun," she said.
And Japanese Ambassador Shinsuke Sugiyama said that while he worries about countries becoming mired in the Kyoto fight, he's also confident that they can make progress on substantive issues like adaptation, technology and avoiding deforestation.
"There are some dangers, but at the same time, none of us want to see this get bogged down in a stalemate," he said. "No one wants to see a fiasco."
A precedent for walkouts and 'heartburn'
There's certainly precedent for a major climate blowout, though. Last year, the tiny island of Tuvalu brought the entire Copenhagen summit to a standstill over demands for a tougher treaty. That was followed by another half-day suspension when a group of African countries staged a walkout over accusations that richer countries were seeking to dodge their obligations to cut carbon and to kill off the Kyoto Protocol.
Matthew Bateson, managing director of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development's energy and climate team, which is bringing dozens of business leaders to Cancun, said he remembers well the process fights from other climate summits --- and what a turnoff it is for CEOs.
"I think that's where it loses people, that's where it loses business," Bateson said. "What we're looking for when we are in COPs is, what are the indications that the progress is actually moving down that level of practicality, and there are actually opportunities for businesses to engage?"
One former Western country negotiator said it's hard to say how forcefully developing countries will push the Kyoto position this year, but he worries that the United States and the Mexican hosts of this year's U.N. conference are not preparing for the worst.
"It could be a bigger breakdown than the Mexicans or the United States expect," the former negotiator said. "They're not appreciating the risk, and I think the Mexicans may not be, either."
Said Jake Schmidt, international policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, "I would wager this could be a last-minute heartburn in the final night."