CANCUN, Mexico -- Hysteria seems to have taken a holiday from the U.N. climate change treaty talks.
Maybe it's the sun, or the calming turquoise waters that greet negotiators each morning. Or maybe it's that expectations for this year's annual global warming summit already are set at the lowest rung. But the anxiety and frenzy that marked last year's conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, are largely absent from this Yucatan peninsula resort town.
That's not to say delegates from 192 countries entering their second week of talks today are near an agreement. Far from it. Deep divisions exist still on a number of issues -- the future of the Kyoto Protocol chief among them -- and many developing countries are frustrated over the pace and tenor of the discussions.
Yet one week into the 16th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, no group has staged a walkout. No mob of activists dressed as polar bears has blocked the entrance to the negotiating hall. No country has brought a plenary session to a standstill over a pitched procedural battle. And at least one hyperventilated rumor of a "secret text" was batted down almost as quickly as it began.
This year, diplomats say, despite their differences the mood is relatively calm. Or, as they might say in Mexico, tranquilo.
"My expectation was that by this time this week we would have a clearer picture of the possible shape of the outcome. ... We have had enough time this year and in Cancun to move issues forward," lamented Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, Brazil's top climate negotiator. But, he added, "We feel that there is a genuine effort by all countries to compromise."
Figueiredo noted that many negotiators can only bend as far as their instructions from higher-ups allow them, leaving the meat of the talks for the end of this week when country ministers take the reins.
"Let's hope that by Tuesday we have enough material for closing the deal in the subsequent days. That's my hope and this will require very hard work, very strong compromise period, but I think it is feasible."
Top ministers arrive
By Saturday about 40 ministers had arrived, including U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern and Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh. A handful of heads of state are expected to fly in this week, mainly from small island nations and throughout Latin America. Things could heat up significantly tomorrow, when Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and President Rafael Correa of Ecuador show up for a high-level segment.
Over the weekend, though, a relatively relaxed pace took hold. Stern made it out for a bike ride before launching into plenary discussions Saturday. Germany's lead negotiator found time to swing by a German Marshall Fund wine reception. Others found time to chit chat over watermelon juice at the Cancun Messe convention center or the deluxe Moon Palace resort where the actual talks are being conducted.
For most countries, the stated goal of this conference is to build on the Copenhagen Accord political agreement that world leaders struck last year. That document recorded emission reduction pledges of industrialized, emerging and even a few developing countries and called for a global monitoring system to oversee the work. In return, industrialized nations pledged to deliver $30 billion in climate aid by 2012 and $100 billion annually by 2020.
China is resisting a monitoring system, but the United States has insisted upon one as a condition of mobilizing aid. That has been the key sticking point in the talks, and as of the weekend was still unresolved despite an attempt by India to sweep in with a compromise plan. Diplomats say breaking that stalemate is the only thing that can allow other agreements on issues like protection of tropical forests, helping developing countries adapt to climate change and technology transfer.
Overshadowing the possibilities for progress on the nuts and bolts, though, is a bitter battle over the Kyoto Protocol. The 1997 agreement, which the United States never ratified, is slated to be extended for a second phase. But Japan dropped a bomb on the first day of the talks when the government announced it will take no part in a new stage of the treaty that only calls on industrialized countries to cut carbon emissions.
The announcement sparked an uproar that isn't likely to die down. Developing countries insist on continuing with Kyoto -- and certainly, at least, until something better is developed. Some are warning no agreements will go forward unless industrialized countries give their blessing to a second phase.
Andrew Deutz, who leads the Nature Conservancy's international climate effort, said he is confident countries will come to a "muddled compromise" on the issue. "It's unresolvable," he said. "I don't see a way that that's going to get resolved in the next week."
A text loaded with options
In terms of concrete accomplishments, the conference chair this weekend released the draft text of a potential agreement. The 33-page text proposes that countries agree to "hold the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels." But by including a series of options, the text still leaves wide latitude for debate over everything from emission reduction goals to the creation of a new climate fund.
Environmental groups lent cautious praise to the text even as they pointed out gaping holes.
"The text released today sets the stage for an agreement next week, but only if countries find ways to compromise. Narrowing down the differences that remain will not be easy. Not finding agreement next week would be a failure of leadership and creativity. The countries gathered here must successfully address this critical challenge," Jake Schmidt, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's international climate program said in a statement.
Delegates were cautious outside an informal stock-taking meeting Saturday night, held so that parties could weigh in on the progress that had been made during the first week of negotiations. One Singaporean delegate described the weekend as "half time" and said the real test of the conference would come in the second half when ministers and senior negotiators are present.
"We always want a balanced package," the delegate said, repeating a phrase that pops up often at the summit. "That's what everyone wants."
A Spanish delegate agreed that the summit likely would not result in a binding agreement, in part because the United States has not enacted a cap on carbon emissions and appears unlikely to do so in the near future. He said President Obama is partially responsible for the fact that no climate change law was enacted in the first two years, noting that health care legislation and other goals took precedence over climate. "I do not think it was his top priority, no," he said.
Consolation at Señor Frogs
Pauline Remouchamps, a 24-year-old recent college graduate from Belgium, attended the summit as part of Youngo, a youth climate group. The dozen or so smiling Youngos wearing green T-shirts scored a victory last week when delegates approved tweaks the group proposed to an education program. Specifically, Remouchamps said, Youngo won changes to ensure that hands-on programs aimed at educating young people about climate change would benefit boys and girls equally.
Remouchamps said her group had also met with European and U.S. delegations urging action on a variety of fronts and reminding them of what is at stake if action is not taken in time avoid the worst effects of global warming.
"It's our future, so we're not just stakeholders," she said. "We're more than that."
Many of the younger summit participants celebrated an end to the first week of talks with a trip to Señor Frogs, a tequila joint catering to American spring breakers in Cancun's tourist district. Environmental activists and summit observers drank margaritas and danced to a cover band's renditions of Beyonce and Bon Jovi, while on two screens on either side of the stage showed clips from past climate rallies and UNFCCC press conferences on a continual loop.
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.