CANCUN, Mexico -- U.N. climate talks enter into their final phase today as South African President Jacob Zuma joins world leaders to address prospects for a global warming agreement many here hope will be signed in South Africa next year.
U.S. Special Envoy Todd Stern and other negotiators met behind closed doors for a session that lasted well past midnight. The Mexican president of the 16th Conference of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change declared that work would wrap up by early Friday evening, though veterans of the treaty process familiar with the dizzying final hours of talks that often extend into the weekend, were skeptical.
As of yesterday afternoon, negotiators had made only incremental progress amid a backdrop of powerful speeches from ministers urging immediate action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. "They've been hammering away at different fronts, making progress in some," said Alden Meyer, director of policy and strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
By evening, though, no compromise had been struck on the one issue many say could be the death of the U.N. climate change negotiations: how to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive.
The fate of the 1997 treaty has been center stage since day one of the talks, when Japan declared it would not take targets under the treaty's second commitment period that begins in 2012. Developing countries say continuing the Kyoto Protocol, which only requires industrialized nations to take binding emission targets, is non-negotiable.
"With Kyoto there is no compromise. We're talking about survival. Unfortunately, we're leaving the picture of humanity behind and putting the economics up front," said Collin Beck, U.N. ambassador from the Solomon Islands.
Meyer said environmental groups met yesterday with Japan's environment minister and urged him to reconsider, saying that if Japan pulls out and Kyoto collapses, it will be "a gift to the Republicans and the fossil fuel industry," making it that much harder to spur U.S. action to cut emissions. Meyer described the minister as "gracious" but said he saw no evidence of a shift.
Japan digs in against treaty extension
"This is a position coming from the prime minister himself," Meyer said. Still, Meyer said he does believe countries will be able to finesse the impasse by avoiding the need for countries to declare new emission targets and simply reaffirming in Cancun that the purpose of the negotiations is to create a second commitment period.
"I don't know why that would be a problem for the Japanese to let others go forward," he said.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, riding a bus from the negotiations hall, said Japan's position has opened the door to other developed countries eager to flee the Kyoto Protocol like Canada.
"Canada has no climate plan at all, so our role at these meetings is to be a saboteur," she said. Japan refusing to put forward targets for a second Kyoto period, she said, "gives Canada cover." She believes the fight will be resolved this week because rising global temperatures demand it.
"This is not a joke. We're very close to passing the point of no return," May said. "As long as the Kyoto Protocol doesn't die in Cancun, between now and Durban we need nonstop shuttle diplomacy."
Meanwhile yesterday, work on rules to protect tropical forests nearly took a hit when a group of lawmakers in Brazil intent on easing environmental obligations on farmers and ranchers called for an urgent vote to reform the nation's forest code. The parliamentary move could require an emergency vote on legislation allowing farmers to cut down hundreds of hectares of Amazonian forest.
"This has such an impact on our compromises in Copenhagen," said Karen Regina Suassuna with World Wildlife Fund in Brazil. She said studies estimate the changes could lead to 70 million hectares of felled forest. That could cripple the country's pledge of reducing its carbon dioxide output 36 percent over the coming decade -- mostly through protecting its forests.
Funding, transparency and forest issues remain unsettled
But Brazil's congress has about 400 of such "urgency" vote requests, some of which have been waiting on a vote for a decade. Brazilian officials said there is little chance that the government -- which opposes changes to the Forest Code -- will allow the bill to come to the front of the queue.
Brazil's chief climate negotiator Luiz Figueiredo declined to comment on the Forest Code maneuver or its impact.
"I'm aware that this issue is under consideration by congress. I would not comment on that issue. The fact that this piece of legislation is being considered and we don't know yet the outcome has no bearing on what we are doing here," he said.
Others in the delegation, though, said the timing of the agribusiness-backed members of congress was not an accident and could have been harmful to the negotiating process. "When everybody here is discussing the climate change, they want to vote something that has clear implications in terms of Brazil," one Brazilian official said.
On discussions over how to create a new fund to assist developing countries, some minor progress was made.
Greenpeace climate finance adviser Steven Herz said talks are happening in two streams. One involves setting down the details of creating a new fund and how to develop long-term sources of funding. The other, more difficult discussion, revolves around putting the finance negotiations in the context of the larger talks.
So far, Herz said, the United States maintains that all the pieces of a deal need to move in parallel, meaning they can only move ahead when the United States gets what it wants most: a detailed commitment from China that it will allow inspection and analysis of its mitigation efforts.
"They're essentially holding the handbreak on pieces that could move faster to ensure that they get what they want on transparency," Herz said. "It's a high-risk strategy. Everybody understands the process is fragile and needs success to continue."
One specific provision the U.S. opposes in the fund, he said, is language calling for a panel to establish the needs of developing countries between the years 2013 and 2020. Industrialized countries promised $30 billion by 2020 and $100 million annually by midcentury.
But that figure, Herz pointed out, "is not based on any assessment of where the science is or country actions are." An assessment likely will show a gap between what countries committed and what will be required. For the United States, Herz said, "That's a risk for them."
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the area of felled forest that studies estimate could result from proposed changes in Brazil's rules to protect tropical forests, according to Suassuna of WWF. The correct figure is 70 million hectares.