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International Climate Negotiations Grind to a Standstill

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Not much has been said or written about the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) since the flurry of post-Cancun commentary. So what's been happening with the climate talks?

In the US, the President Obama's party got a "shellacking," as he described it, at the midterm elections. Some inside the Beltway have blamed the magnitude of the Democrats' defeat on their support for a failed climate bill. Perhaps in response to this conventional wisdom, the president has virtually removed the "c-word" from his vocabulary. That likely make it even more politically difficult for the US to be an active participant in the climate talks.

At the UN, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon made waves when he reportedly decided to end his personal involvement with the international climate negotiations. Robert Orr, who as assistant secretary general for strategic planning is a key adviser to Ban, pointedly told The Guardian's Suzanne Goldberg that "it is very evident that there will not be a single grand deal at any point in the near future." With that in mind, he said Ban "will have to tack back and forth between the multilateral negotiating process and national realities on the ground."

The Secretary General attempted to calm the storm days later.

"I will continue to engage world leaders, just as I have here in Davos, to advance climate negotiations and to make concrete progress on the ground," Ban said in a speech to the 2,500 or so industry titans and heads of state who attended the recently concluded World Economic Forum in Switzerland. "This is integral to our overall sustainable development agenda. As I told [South African] President Zuma yesterday, I look forward to attending [the next climate summit] in Durban this December and will do all I can to build upon recent success in Cancun. I also had a meeting with President Calderon of Mexico, and we will work in concert together to achieve progress in the climate change process."

At the same annual business forum in Davos, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres returned to a familiar theme: the importance of private sector leadership. She and other political leaders asked the industrialists in attendance to help halt global warming.

"The solutions have to come from business," said EU climate negotiator Connie Hedegaard during a panel with Figueres, Calderon, and Zuma.

"I think that's one of the areas we are going to work very hard leading to Durban to convince business to be party so that it's not just governments alone," Zuma said. Business, he added, is currently "part of the problem, and they must be part of the solution."

Far from the lofty heights of Davos, there is less optimism about the future of the UNFCCC process.

"I see a great difficulty seeing a concrete result at Durban," Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit on Friday, February 4th. "Cancun provided us with a work plan and we should stop interpreting and rather implement it."

"I don't see any agreement on the second commitment period for Kyoto Protocol," Ramesh added.

Najib Saab, the secretary general of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, agrees but sees the potential for compromise.

"It is now an implicit reality that the second phase of Kyoto cannot be a copy of the first one," Saab writes in an op-ed for Lebannon's Daily Star newspaper. "Concessions will be required from all parties, to meet somewhere in the middle, taking emerging realities into account," he says, suggesting that emissions from China, India and other emerging economies be treated differently than impoverished nation's like Zimbabwe.

Saab hopes Mexican diplomats, who played a critical and much-celebrated role in producing an agreement during the last climate summit in Cancun, will remain involved in the process. With their help, he hopes the negotiations can "shift from the vague approach of 'common but differentiated responsibilities' [enshrined in the Kyoto] to a clearly defined principle of shared responsibility based on fairness."

The road between a binding Kyoto successor agreement and where the negotiations are now is long, but there are a few stops along the way that may give diplomats the chance to move UN process in that direction. The first UNFCCC meeting since Cancun is planned for April 3 in Bangkok, Thailand. Senior government negotiators will meet there, then again at a session planned for June in Bonn, Germany, and likely at another meeting before environmental ministers travel to Durban at the end of 2011.

This post was originally published by UN Dispatch.

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