Fiona Harvey Cancun begins

Compromise, compromise, compromise – that is the watchword for the climate talks now going on in Cancun, according to the United Nations’ top climate change official, Christiana Figueres (pictured).

Her insistence was a clear reminder that the first objective of this year’s conference is to avoid scenes of the kind that marred the final days of last year’s summit in Copenhagen – when the debate degenerated into name-calling on the part of some countries, to the deep offence of many others.

It was impossible to predict yesterday whether her call for a constructive spirit would be heeded – on the first day, it’s easy for all the negotiators to wear winning smiles and to clap the anodyne speeches.

But Ms Figueres was right to call for governments to seek common ground. These talks have crawled on for 20 years because over that time countries have dug into deeply entrenched positions from which they are unwilling to budge. Watching them stay in the same groove year after year – often, it’s the same people year after year saying the same things in the same way – is a depressing spectacle.

Copenhagen, at least, was a change from all that – and despite the fighting and scenes more suited to a playground than an international summit, Copenhagen did produce the only progress that has been made on climate change since the 1997 Kyoto protocol, in the form of an accord that binds both developed countries to cut their emissions and developing countries to curb the growth of theirs.

But the open warfare of Copenhagen, while a change from the previous entrenched stalemate, was not much of a step forward. Perhaps a sensible debate where compromise is seen as a virtue rather than a vice is not impossible yet.