After summoning the political will to reach a climate deal at the Cancun summit, global leaders now face a far more daunting task – translating its exhortations into actions, and its vague, somewhat contradictory language into a binding treaty.
The successful conclusion of the Cancun talks in the early hours of Saturday was no small achievement, as countries yielded on deeply held convictions and perceived national interest to prevent the total collapse of the international effort to combat climate change.
As they return to their capitals, the world's environment ministers know the accord has gaping holes, and that some fundamental disagreements among countries were papered over.
"The Cancun decision creates an opportunity for the world to raise the collective level of emission-reduction targets in the months and years ahead," said Alden Meyer, policy director for the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
"But it doesn't guarantee success, and there is no more agreement on how much should be done and by which countries than there was when negotiators arrived in Cancun."
Those decisions – and the fate of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol after it expires in 2012 – were put off in the hopes that more progress can be made at next year's summit in Durban, South Africa.
In vague language, the Cancun accord expressed the need for a new round of Kyoto emission-reduction obligations to cover the post-2012 period, even though Japan, Russia and Canada had made it clear they were not prepared to make such commitments.
Former Canadian negotiator John Drexhage said the Cancun agreement actually embodies the deep international divisions over climate change, rather than addressing them. And while Prime Minister Stephen Harper insists Canada supports a new treaty that would have binding commitments from all major emitters, not just those included in the Kyoto agreement, Mr. Drexhage said that is not in the cards, at least in the short term.
"I just don't see how we can expect any kind of comprehensive, binding treaty resulting from this," he said after closely monitoring the talks in Cancun. "We just have extremely different expectations" among countries.
Mr. Drexhage said the United States remains a key missing piece of the puzzle, even as major developing countries like China, Brazil and India pursue aggressive climate-action plans that will slow their emissions' rate of growth. Having refused to ratify Kyoto, the United States has no legally binding emission targets and will be hard-pressed to meet the reduction commitments President Barack Obama made at last year's meeting in Copenhagen.
And with its massive federal debt piling up, there is little confidence among developing countries that it will deliver on pledges to provide financial assistance to less-developed nations to combat climate change.
Mr. Obama has indicated the Environmental Protection Agency will begin regulating major industries to reduce emissions, while both federal and state governments pursue other actions, including tougher emission standards for cars and trucks. But the President is under growing pressure from Republicans – and even many Democrats – in Congress to reverse course on climate regulations and financing to focus instead on economic growth and debt reduction.
Leading up to the Durban conference, other countries will be questioning the U.S. ability to play a meaningful role, and will be adjusting their own actions and negotiating positions accordingly.
The Harper government has clearly stated that it will not move significantly beyond the Americans in adopting climate regulations, even though Canada has obligations under Kyoto.
To avoid a train wreck, the negotiators essentially agreed to disagree at Cancun, but it will be difficult to avoid a showdown at next year's summit in Durban.
The Harper government argues any new treaty should be based on the political deal reached at Copenhagen, which allows countries to chose their own yardsticks for targets, rather than the common framework of the Kyoto accord. In lockstep with the United States, Canada has committed to reducing emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.
But it remains unclear how Ottawa intends to meet that target since no detailed plan has been released. Canada has followed the U.S. lead in regulating the transportation sector; intends to pass regulations that will cut emissions from coal-fired power plants starting in about 10 years; and is promoting the controversial use of technology to capture carbon-dioxide from oil sands upgraders and refineries. As well, provinces are pursuing their own actions that will contribute to Canada's overall 2020 goal.
A growing number of experts say Canada needs a polluter-pay principle on greenhouse gases. "If Canada is serious about reducing greenhouse gases, then governments must put an economy-wide price on carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions," Mark Jaccard, an environmental economist at Simon Fraser University, said in a paper published last month by the business-oriented C.D. Howe Institute.
But politicians in Canada – like their colleagues globally – are loath to ask too much of their citizens to prevent climate effects that, for the most part, are in the uncertain future.
The gigatonne gap
The Cancun accord says countries should take "urgent action" to hold the rise in average temperatures to 2 C above pre-industrial norms.
But it fails to address the yawning gap between the amount of emission reductions that most climate scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic global warming and the level that would be reached if all major countries met their current pledges to reduce or slow the production of greenhouse gases.
With a temperature increase of 2 C, the world can still expect more violent storms, melting polar ice and glaciers, and extreme drought and flooding in various regions, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Many countries want the limit to be 1.5 C, which would require Herculean efforts to slash emissions.
The weekend agreement urges – but does not commit – countries to "raise their level of ambition" on emission reductions.
For major emitters like the United States and China, the emission-reduction commitments are voluntary, made under the political deal reached last year in Copenhagen, an agreement that many developing countries bitterly denounced. The Cancun accord offers no clear vision as to how those pledges will become part of a binding accord.