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'Terrific ten' given days to save the world

Richard Black | 17:55 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

From the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico.

Enid Blyton had five (and then seven) - Ocean had 11 (and then 12).

Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa, president of the UN climate summit here, has gone for 10 - 10 people who have just three days to save the planet.

UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary of State Chris Huhne

UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary of State Chris Huhne

OK, that's a bit of hyperbole - the planet itself is going to be fine, whatever holds for life on it - but there's no doubt that the task Ms Espinosa has handed to 10 ministers here is a tough one.

In five pairs - developing country paired with rich world counterpart - the ministers have been charged with finding compromise routes through the trickiest areas of negotiation.

Sweden and Grenada are looking at the shared vision - the over-arching description of what countries want this process to achieve. Currently there are at least three distinguishable visions - arguably many more - held by different groups of countries.

Spain and Algeria will discuss adaptation, while Australia and Bangladesh have finance, technology and capacity building.

Taken together, these areas really deal with how rich countries help poorer ones to deal with climate change - adapting to impacts, and developing along "clean" lines - as they are obliged to do under the climate convention.

When it comes to cutting carbon, New Zealand and Indonesia get to deal with the big picture - developing countries, the US, the long-term goals - while the UK and Brazil have secured possibly the thorniest of issues, the future of the Kyoto Protocol.

Japan said definitively at the beginning of this conference that they would not accept further emission cuts under the protocol; developing countries demand that it continues.

You might ask why they're so insistent on the protocol - why should the vehicle chosen for the West's carbon cuts matter, so long as the cuts are big enough?

In part it's because of the protocol's legally-binding character, in part because it contains procedures to channel support to developing countries, and partly because they figured that rich countries promised, so they should keep their promise.

So the UK's Chris Huhne - barely six months into his term of office as UK climate and energy secretary - and Brazil's Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira have to find a way between the archetypal Scylla and Charybdis.

Brazil's Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira

Brazil's Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira

The pairs of ministers are holding meetings with key countries, and are supposed to report back to the Mexican chairs early on Wednesday.

Mr Huhne and Ms Teixiera have so far talked to Japan, the G77 group of developing countries, Australia, the African group. Talks are set with Russia, Canada, the small island states; there'll also be a free-for all session where anyone can come and pitch in their ideas.

Japan, reportedly, was "robust" - when you've come out with such a strong statement as they have, it's not easy to pull back without a great deal being promised in return.

For all 10 ministers, this is a painstaking job. But Mr Huhne outlined the importance of getting the fundementals sorted here, before he and others begin the big push for a legally-binding deal next year.

"You can't expect to have an 'instant coffee' solution - just add hot water and you've got a climate change treaty," he told reporters.

What we have is more of a sushi preparation scenario - a slice of fish here, a smattering of wasabi, a substantive lump of rice folded into a tasty envelope of tofu - specialist work indeed.

Luckily, the 10 ministers have legal teams to help them - people who are adept at melting and casting and re-melting and re-casting language until it takes on a form in which all parties can see beauty.

And it's probably no exaggeration to say that on their capacity to do so, plus the personal chemistry ministers manage to generate with sometimes aggrieved and sometimes belligerent delegates, hangs the the success or failure of Cancun.

 

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