Fiona Harvey Cancun – what is it all about?

So what is happening at Cancun?

Environment ministers and government officials from around the world are gathering in Mexico to talk about climate change, and how to tackle the problem of increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Didn’t they do that last year?

Last year’s climate summit in Copenhagen produced a deal by which both developed and developing countries for the first time agreed to curbs on their greenhouse gas emissions, but that was not a full treaty.

Will a treaty be signed this year?

No – the Cancun meeting is a staging post on the way to a bigger meeting in South Africa next year, at which the United Nations is hoping a new pact will be signed.

So what will happen at Cancun?

Not much. The main objective of the governments that want a climate treaty is simply to prevent the process from breaking down this year. A breakdown is a distinct possibility – last year’s Copenhagen summit ended amid scenes of chaos and recriminations. Some of the countries that helped cause the disruption last year have expressed their intention of doing the same this year.

For the UN, if Cancun goes off without major disagreements among key countries, and without large numbers of governments walking out, then that would be a victory.

Why have things got so bad?

In the year since Copenhagen, governments have made little progress on climate talks, and in some cases progress made in Denmark has been reversed. Some of the key players are now mired in difficulty: the Republican mid-term victory in the US, for instance, has left the White House in a tricky negotiating position, while in Europe there are rows among member states over whether to toughen the bloc’s emissions-cutting targets. China professes to be in favour of a treaty, but has been accused of intransigence in the negotiations and of reopening old arguments.

Will anything be achieved at Cancun?

The UN is hopeful that an agreement may be struck on how to pay poor countries to keep their forests standing. Beyond that, there will be discussions on the broader issue of how financing can be provided to developing countries to help them reduce emissions and adapt to the effects of global warming.

What are the prospects for a treaty next year?

Given the position of the US, and other major players, the chances of a comprehensive treaty that would meet scientific objectives being signed are still slim. However, a compromise could be reached that would at least set the world on a path of lower emissions. If the talks break down at Cancun, the UN process will be effectively over.