It’s now the morning of day 6 of the climate negotiations in Cancun – Saturday is just a normal working day for everyone here. The good news is that the terrible traffic congestion has disappeared (it actually only lasted for one day), the bad news is that better traffic is the only thing anyone can be sure of right now.

It’s been an interesting but frustrating week, with the pace of negotiation seemingly very slow. I had my first experience of sitting in on a so-called ‘contact group’ this week – where negotiators from different countries (usually a limited number rather than the entire 194 countries who are represented in a plenary) meet to go through specific text on specific issues. It was a hard-won lesson for me about what the cold, hard reality of these negotiations actually is.

The way that the contact group worked was that the specific countries that are represented go through the text literally line by line, with the chair introducing each paragraph, and then each country gets an opportunity to propose amendments to the text and speak up if they’ve got any major problems.

One paragraph of two sentences can be debated for 20 minutes. To put this into perspective: the current text under negotiation is hundreds if not thousands of paragraphs long. This requires infinite patience from the negotiators, but also real attention to detail. The contact group lasted one and a half hours and managed to get through around 10 paragraphs of text (but ‘getting through’ and ‘agreeing on’ are two (very) different things).

So, what is really at stake?

Under negotiation at the moment are two key things (well, lots of key things, but overall there are two overarching items under negotiation, which is known as ‘two tracks’):

  1. The continuation of the Kyoto Protocol (which binds developed countries to reducing their emissions). The issue being that the first commitment period (in which developed countries committed to act on climate change) of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, with nothing agreed about what exactly will follow after that; and

  2. The negotiations around a separate agreement called ‘long-term co-operative action’ which would include action from the USA (who is not a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol) and also from emerging economies (like China, India, Brazil and South Africa).


It’s a major question in the negotiations about whether to continue with a so-called ‘two-track’ process, or whether to start talking about one legally binding outcome.

For developing countries, the two track process is crucial, because the Kyoto Protocol is the only thing holding developed countries accountable for causing climate change and there is a real fear that if the this treaty were to disappear then the world would be left with nothing, or something much worse.

The problem being that certain developed countries aren’t too keen to stay in a treaty that a) doesn’t include the USA and b) doesn’t include some action from major emerging economies. Well, there is another problem of course: because of domestic politics in the USA (where action on climate change appears close to impossible at the moment) it appears likely that the USA may be unable to sign a legally binding treaty anytime soon. Which, as you can imagine, results in a bit of a stalemate.

One thing that is very clear is that climate change and its impacts wait for no negotiations, and while patience may be a virtue, the longer countries aren't prepared to move forward with speed, the more threatened our planet and our hope for a green future becomes.