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Time to get down to [business] at Cancun

Richard Black | 19:27 UK time, Thursday, 9 December 2010

From the UN climate summit in Cancun, Mexico:

I've been rifling through the main documents that delegations are discussing here, with a view to finding out how far they have to travel if they're to leave here clutching a piece of paper more meaningful than a plane ticket.

There are two key documents - one concerning the Kyoto Protocol, the other everything else (Long-term Co-operative Action, or LCA, in the jargon).

Screen grab of one of the negotiating texts

Delegates in Cancun now have to make progress on negotiating texts

They're neither the behemoths of negotiating texts that we've seen in previous climate meetings, nor a back-of-a-cigarette-packet political declaration such as the one that emerged at the end of the Copenhagen summit.

One's 36 pages, the other 48 - plenty of space to flesh out headline ideas, yet easily digestible.

Unfortunately for those who wish to see conclusions here, they are horribly full of bits that have yet to be agreed.

The Kyoto Protocol document in is worse state than the other one. I'll give you a paragraph as a taster:

"The Parties included in Annex I shall, individually or jointly, ensure that their aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the greenhouse gases listed in Annex A [bis] do not exceed their [total] assigned amounts, calculated pursuant to their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments inscribed in the third column of the table contained in Annex B [and determined by applying the principle of historical responsibility, their emissions debt and addressing the needs of developing countries5] and in accordance with the provisions of this Article, with a view to [ensuring a fair allocation of the global atmospheric space to all Parties and] reducing their overall emissions of such gases by at least [X][50][49][33][15] per cent below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2013 to [2017][2020]."

The square brackets, indicating things that are still up for decision, offer hugely different pathways - reflecting the hugely different outcomes that various parties want here.

And to put this in context, that paragraph is the first in one two-page option for that bit of the protocol. There's another option, of similar length - and bits of both are in brackets.

Campaigners in the sea, Cancun (Image: AFP/Getty Images)

Campaigners are making the most of the Mexican resort's shoreline

Elsewhere, we find wording on how governments should account for greenhouse gas emissions from managed lands, or greenhouse gas absorption by managed lands.

What should be included? Every single option in this bit - re-vegetation, forest management, cropland management, grazing land management, and wetland management - is in square brackets... as is the paragraph itself.

The second document contains at the top some pretty impressive-sounding commitments... governments should co-operate so as stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations below 350 parts per million of CO2-equivalent, collectively halve emissions by 2050, and scale up commitments to providing money for poorer countries.

It sounds impressive... until you realise that none of this is agreed.

Elsewhere there are signs of twin visions at work.

So this meeting will either establish an adaptation committee to help poorer countries adapt to climate impacts... or decide to discuss further how to achieve the objective.

It will either decide to aim for reaching a legally-binding instrument, or an "outcome" - a word capable of flexible interpretation.

Developed countries will either commit to providing 1.5% of their GDP by 2020 to help poorer nations, or commit to a goal of mobilising $100bn per year by 2020... note how different committing to do something and committing to a goal of doing something can sound.

And all of this is to be worked out by the end of Friday...

Who's pushing each of the twin visions is a slightly tall order to unravel - especially bearing in mind that the information we journalists get on these matters is fragmentary and sometimes spun, always covering only a tiny part of the whole, and that governments never reveal their private hand in public.

But in general, the US is clearly arguing for weak, vague outcomes - and indeed their lead negotiator Todd Stern has hinted as much in press briefings, repeatedly batting away questions on detail.

Japan, Canada, Russia and Turkey are opposed to further emission cuts under the Kyoto Protocol - and the first three are said by some sources to be blocking concrete progress here, alongside the US, also preferring a weak agreement.

The vast majority of developing nations want a strong deal with a legally-binding instrument to follow, quick mobilisation of financial resources and - above all - to stop discussing these things and start doing them.

But there are intriguing splits developing. Some hard-liners - notably Bolivia, which was at one stage asking rich countries to pledge 6% of their GDP by 2020 - are being accused by others of blocking progress by sticking out for principles that may be politically unachievable.

But they have their fans too - particularly as they remind rich countries again and again of where the majority of humankind's greenhouse gas emissions came from, and which countries got rich on the back of those emissions.

In some quarters of the developing world, there is grumbling about India and China as they continue to resist any constraints that might be legally binding - but they also have their supporters.

Discussions are continuing; and indeed as you read this, some bits might already be out of date.

But other elements are likely to go down to the wire.

The important question, given that there are so many undecided issues reflecting such a divided community, is whether the final gavel here will fall without agreement on anything.


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