CANCUN, MEXICO -- The United States said Monday it would not back down on its plan to turn the unpopular Copenhagen Accord into a final global warming deal, setting the first day of already fragile UN climate talks in Cancun on edge.
"What we're seeking here in Cancun is a balanced package of decisions that would build on this agreement … [and] preserve the balance of the accord," Jonathan Pershing, lead U.S. climate negotiator in Cancun, told reporters at the talks.
Delegates from almost 200 countries are gathering here in the Mexican beach resort from Nov. 29-Dec. 10 for negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). They aim to set down the path for replacement of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, whose first commitment period ends in 2012.
Many poor countries want to scrap the three-page Copenhagen agreement, cobbled together by a handful of nations in the final hours of the summit last year, and build a stronger blueprint to follow.
In a sign of the hurdles ahead, Pershing presented the accord as a "landmark, balanced agreement," which made progress "on all key elements of the negotiations" and "created broad support.”
“We must stand behind the underpinnings of what our leaders agreed to last year," Pershing declared. "The United States is standing behind the commitments we made in Copenhagen.”
Pershing said the U.S. would make good on its pledge to reduce its emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, even without domestic legislation.
UN Climate Chief Calls for "Urgent" Action
The Cancun talks come amid a crisis of confidence in the UN climate body after last year's summit failed to deliver a legal deal and as the science behind man-made warming gets stronger.
Opening ceremonies began today with calls for immediate action to bring progress.
"It is urgent because ... concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have today reached their highest level since pre-industrial times," said Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UNFCCC. "And it is urgent because the multilateral climate change process needs to remain the trusted channel for rising to the challenge."
"Though the stakes are high and the issues are challenging, compromise is an act of wisdom that can unite different positions in creative ways," she pleaded to delegates.
Figueres said a "complete outcome" is within reach. "That outcome needs to be both firm and dependable and have a dedicated follow-on process for future work."
If all goes well, nations would agree to a "balanced set of decisions" on four key building blocks that are furthest along in treaty talks — slowing tropical forest loss, a framework for international climate aid, clean technology transfer and adaptation.
Two of the stickiest issues in climate negotiations — the depth of emissions reductions and how to verify them — would likely be left for later, observers say. Many claim a final deal is at least two years away — if not longer.
But unofficial draft text, dated Nov. 24, from the chair of the Long Term Cooperative Action Working Group (LCA) suggests all of the issues could be largely ironed out in Cancun.
The document presents "possible elements of an outcome" that would be presented to all UN parties for formal adoption at the end of next week. It covers the full "six pack" of issues — some in great detail — with the goal of signing off on the "comprehensive, although not exhaustive" package in Cancun and "elaborating the remaining elements" in South Africa, the host of next year's climate meeting.
"I think they're trying to stampede in, and trying to push [negotiators] to make a decision [on all issues]," Alistair Graham, global affairs adviser for the Australia-based Humane Society International, told SolveClimate News in Cancun.
Meena Raman, legal adviser and researcher with the Third World Network, a Malaysia-based research and advocacy institution, said the new text represents a "weakening" and "postponing" of ambition.
"It has by and large favored the proposals of the developed countries," she said.
The document, for instance, falls short on the global temperature target, Raman said, embracing the 2 degree Celsius limit when small island states and other developing countries are fighting for a 1.5 Celsius ceiling.
The text has not yet been accepted as the basis of negotiations.
Still, Raman said she is "very worried" that a repeat of Copenhagen is in the works, in which a small group of global heavyweights undermine the work and wishes of poor nations.
African nations, meanwhile, are most concerned with financing.
The Copenhagen Accord commits $30 billion in "fast-start" funds over three years to help poor nations combat and adapt to global warming. So far, pledges have reached an estimated $27.9 billion.
In a draft declaration obtained by SolveClimate News, the African negotiating bloc said it would demand answers by January 31, 2011 on whether that money is "new and additional" or merely recycled aid, among other financing issues.
Despite the fractures, parties urged patience on the first day.
Afelee F. Pita, ambassador to the UN from the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, told SolveClimate News it was too early to judge the talks unfavorably.
"Let's wait a couple of more days, and we'll see how things go," he said.
"It seems certainly premature to forecast the demise of this process."