British Prime Minister David Cameron has refused to attend the UN climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, despite a direct appeal by the Mexican chair of the conference.
The talks, which began on Sunday, have been accompanied by little of the razzamatazz that followed the host of celebrities and world leaders that attended last year’s event in Copenhagen. The US, UK and EU have all played down the chances of a deal and the Mexican authorities expect about 22,000 people, including 9,000 official delegates and journalists — fewer than half the number that attended the at-times chaotic conference in the Danish capital.
Despite low expectations, at least 20 world leaders are expected to be present, the majority from Latin America. The small island states of Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati and Nauru are also planning to send their leaders.
Although the US has little to offer because of the failure of domestic climate legislation in the Senate earlier this year, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned on Sunday that the US risks falling far behind advances made by China and other countries in the global race for clean energy, something he referred to as a “Sputnik moment” — the US response to the Soviet Union’s early lead in the space race.
“We face a choice today,” he said. “Are we going to continue America’s innovation leadership or are we going to fall behind?”
Formal UN climate negotiations did not start until yesterday, but delegates already been have engaged in back-room diplomatic talks, indicating areas where progress could be possible, without making public their negotiating positions. The US, however, is maintaining that it wants to see the voluntary deal reached in Copenhagen last year become the basis of the talks.
“More than 80 countries have targets. We are looking to build on those targets and to progress. We hope to get a long way with all the tracks,” a US Department of State spokesman said.
He added that its offer of a 17 percent cut in emissions on figures for 2000 still held, despite the US domestic situation making it impossible to pass strong legislation.
“This [is] a 10-year position. We are not ducking the issue,” he said.
China and many other developing countries suggested during a meeting on Sunday that they were unhappy with the chair of the UN talks imposing a new negotiating text on countries. Although that is within UN rules, it was interpreted as a possible dangerous repeat of the Copenhagen debacle last year, when many countries were excluded from consultations.
Formal talks during the next two weeks are to focus on forests and finance, but sensitive questions on the legal status of a future agreement and the actual figures that countries are prepared to reduce their emissions by are expected to be put back until ministers arrive next week.
All countries have played down the prospects of the talks reaching a conclusion, but on Sunday there was optimism that the 193 countries are still at the table and trust is rebuilding after Copenhagen.
In a report, Oxfam said that at least 21,000 people died because of weather-related disasters in the first nine months of this year — more than twice the number for the whole of last year.
“This year is on course to experience more extreme-weather events than the 10-year average of 770. It is one of the hottest years ever recorded,” wrote Tim Gore, Oxfam’s EU climate change policy adviser and report’s author.