The Inside Scoop on Cancun with Alex Stark, U.S. Negotiations Tracker

Posted by Ben Jervey

Alex Stark, Todd Stern, Adopt a negotiator, UNFCCC, Cop16, CancunA view inside the Cancun climate talks from America's "negotiations tracker."

As you're probably aware, the current round of international climate talks is now underway in Cancun. Following the flop in Copenhagen last year, and plenty of tension in the "intersessional" U.N. meetings leading up to COP16, expectations for a productive outcome have been pretty low. While there's some good reporting coming out of Cancun, I find the perspective from the Adopt A Negotiator team to be particularly useful.

The Adopt A Negotiator project, part of the TckTckTck campaign, is an effort to help demystify the absurdly complex UNFCCC process and translate the impenetrable language for concerned citizens who want to follow along from their respective countries. Trackers in the program follow the talks closely, form relationships with the delegates from their respective countries, and better understand the nuance of these meetings than most folks there on a press pass. (Full disclosure: I'm hugely biased, as I served as the U.S. "tracker" last year in Copenhagen.)

This afternoon, I stole 15 minutes from the chaotic schedule of current U.S. tracker, Alex Stark, for a Skype chat.

GOOD: How's the mood there in Cancun?

ALEX STARK: I'd say, cautiously positive. Since expectations have been so talked down here, there's a lot of hope that we actually could come out of this with a set of decisions beyond the expectations people had coming in.

There has definitely been a more diplomatic spirit here than we saw at the Intersessionals. The tensions in the language between the U.S. and China that we saw in Tianjin [one of the intersessional meetings] have been toned down.

G: So in the home stretch here of COP16. Where would you say things stand?

AS: Things are still very up in the air. There's been a lot of progress on the actual negotiating text. At the stock-taking session this morning, we saw the new KP and LCA texts that came out of working groups. [Ed note: Kyoto Protocol and Long-term Cooperative Agreement texts, or the updates to the existing U.N. climate treaty and the prospective new agreement.] I think those made a lot of progress in terms of reducing the text and getting rid of a lot of the various options, making the texts more management to pass along to the high level [environment] ministers that have just arrived.

G: So is there a black-or-white, success-or-failure feeling there?

AS: It's actually much more of a spectrum. Optimally, what we're looking for right now is what everyone's calling a "balanced package of decisions." Ideally we see a really robust set of decisions across the board, like, for example, establishing a financial institution to administer adaptation funds, or decisions or REDD, and technology transfer, and so on.

Worst case scenario—and it's theoretically possible—is that the talks make next to no progress on actually moving anything on the ground. 

The U.S., in particular, has been saying that they're particularly concerned with transparency with regards to mitigation [or the cutting of greenhouse gas emissions], and that could hold up everything else. The American delegation has been saying that "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed." In other words, we just can't pick and choose which issues to make a decision on—like, say, a decision on REDD—and push everything else to the next COP.

G: We've been a bit confused about what to make of China's annoucement that they're willing to commit to legally-binding targets. What's the story there?

AS: The general consensus is that the quotes were taken out of context and overblown in that article. Right after it came out the Chinese delegation was saying, actually we met domestic binding commitments. They have new legislation in their next 5 year plan about making emissions reductions.

The other parties seem to be going along with that line of thought. Todd Stern [the head U.S. climate envoy] said he didn't see anything new in that statement. The Indian minister said he was completely confused by that article.

G: So, the great hope of Copenhagen—a fair, ambitious, and binding deal—probably isn't likely over the next couple days, right?

AS: There definitely won't be any binding agreement here. But everyone knew that coming in. The best thing we can expect is this balanced package, if we're lucky. I think a lot of people back home who don't follow this stuff too closely will be disappointed that there's no legally-binding agreement, because it's really hard to understand what this broad, balanced package of decisions really means. There is a timeline in place, supposedly, that we're working towards an agreement at COP17 in Durban [South Africa] in 2011.

G: You keep referring to this "balanced package." What does that mean. What does a "balanced package" look like?

AS: Coming out of Cancun, we can probably expect to see a set of final decisions in text form on how to set up a series of institutions.  This wouldn't be a final agreement in the sense that these institutions, like a climate green fund or a technology transfer board, would be actually established here. Negotiators are actually only expected to agree on the steps going forward to set up those institutions. So for example, they won't actually establish a climate green fund, but they hopefully will be able to sketch out some principles of how the fund would be governed and what it would look like, so that we would have some forward progress going into the next year on actually establishing such a fund.

Follow along the U.S. position in Cancun on Adopt A Negotiator, or through Alex's twitterPhoto: Alex Stark with head U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern. Credit: Adopt a Negotiator