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Taking the Global Temperature at Cancun

Climate change conference kicks off amid hope and challenges

By Geoff Grant – Zoe Environmental Editor

The U.N. Climate Change Conference kicks off today in Cancun, Mexico, with the quixotic goal of trying to unite the 194 participating nations and reach consensus on how to address global climate change.

This will be the 13th annual conference since the inaugural and landmark Kyoto Protocol was reached in 1997. While delegates are hopeful of making progress during these meetings, which end December 10, huge challenges remain.

Getting China and the U.S. to reach a deal continues to present the biggest hurdle. Neither country has signed the Kyoto accord and both have remained unwilling to detail plans or act on reducing their carbon emissions, a key cause of global warming. China, the U.S., Russia and India are the four biggest world leaders in carbon emissions.

“I’d be surprised if it [a treaty] happens,” said Elliot Diringer of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “Expectations are getting much lower and more realistic in the wake of Copenhagen.”

Last year’s conference in Copenhagen was viewed largely as a failure after a proposed treaty to slow climate change faltered. World leaders ultimately made symbolic pledges to reduce greenhouse gases, but those pledges were all voluntary and no enforceable steps were outlined.

“Creating a comprehensive climate treaty is a hell of a task.”

While few believe China and the U.S. will forge any landmark accord in Cancun, optimism exists that smaller measures will move forward. Among those are efforts to halt deforestation in tropical countries, sharing green technology and to raise and funnel $100 billion in aid per year to poor economies by the year 2020. That “Green Fund” was agreed to in Copenhagen, but that’s a long way from being enacted, funded, or having the monies distributed.

In fact, according to at least one expert, Cancun may be in the rear-view mirror before it even begins as some are already looking to next year’s conference in South Africa to solve many of today’s problems.

“Creating a comprehensive climate treaty is a hell of a task,” said David Freestone, who currently teaches a course on international climate change law at George Washington University’s Law School in Washington, D.C. Freestone said that the next two weeks will mostly be about laying the “building blocks” for an eventual deal. “They’re not anywhere near it right now.”