Saturday's conclusion of the Cancun climate talks yielded modest agreements that allowed the meeting to be described in positive terms by its hosts and organizers, but at least on the major question of a globally-binding treaty to extend or replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol, it merely kicked the can down the road to the late-2011 session in Durban, South Africa. As low as the expectations going into Cancun were, keeping the UN climate process on life support looks like a good result, compared to last year's fiasco in Copenhagen. However, in light of the objections raised by Japan, Russia, Canada and others, it's difficult to see how the Durban meeting could succeed where Cancun and Copenhagen failed. It looks increasingly likely that the replacement for Kyoto might appear face-savingly similar, but will lack that document's cohesiveness and global authority.
As I read the portion of the "Cancun Agreements" dealing with the extension of the Kyoto Protocol beyond its previously-set 2008-2012 term, the delegates mainly agreed to keep talking and to try to come up with a framework in time to avoid a "gap between the first and second commitment periods." Considering that last year's session in Copenhagen was widely viewed before its start as the last, best chance to accomplish that goal based on the timeline set in Bali two years prior, the end of 2011 looks pretty late in the game to deliver on that. Moreover, while Cancun was able to get by on low expectations, Durban will be unable to repeat that trick and avoid the kind of set-up that helped doom the Copenhagen talks.
The chasm that remains to be bridged doesn't seem to have changed much: the developing countries still insist on binding emissions reduction targets from the developed countries, to which the UN process attributes the majority of emissions under the "principle of historical responsibility, their emissions debt and addressing the needs of developing countries", but won't commit to binding targets themselves. (I've discussed this notion of "emissions debt" previously.) But while the US has signed up for voluntary emissions reductions under the Copenhagen Accord, it won't agree to binding cuts unless the world's largest emitter, China, also does. And all China appears willing to agree to, based on its Copenhagen commitments, is the sort of productivity-based reductions that the rest of the developed world rejected when the US advanced this idea for managing our emissions in the first term of the Bush administration. Even if China succeeds in cutting its emissions per GDP by 40-45% while its economy continues on its present growth trend, its overall emissions would still increase in absolute terms. Japan and some other Kyoto signatories are understandably reluctant to sign up for deeper cuts themselves, unless the world's two biggest emitters commit to sharing their pain.
And this is where the timing of any substantive Kyoto extension hits the wall of US politics. If the administration wasn't able to pass cap and trade legislation in the last Congressional session, when its party had an effective majority of 60 seats in the US Senate in 2009 and 59 in 2010, the prospect of ratifying a climate treaty with a majority of just 53 next year--including one who campaigned vocally against cap and trade--is nearly non-existent. The administration is struggling just to get the new strategic arms treaty with Russia ratified in the Lame Duck session--a treaty with solid bi-partisan endorsements from the foreign policy leadership of past administrations. The likely reception for a new climate treaty would be much less favorable than that until at least 2013 and probably beyond, in light of the ratio of seats up for reelection in 2012.
Unless I'm missing something major, without the US and China on board for binding cuts Japan and others won't agree to deeper reductions in the next round of Kyoto. That doesn't mean that the Durban Climate Conference won't cobble together an eleventh-hour agreement that looks like an extension of Kyoto, in order to avoid an irreparable rupture between the developed and developing world parties to the talks. The subtext for that is already in place in the Cancun outcome. However, it seems highly unlikely that such a document would actually do what Kyoto was intended to do. As a result, the UN process seems to be consigned to focusing on the secondary areas that progressed in Cancun, relating to funding for adaptation and technology transfer, and emissions reductions from sectors like land-use changes and forestry. With the economies of the developed world looking as weak as they do, and with domestic expenditure cuts in the EU having generated noisy and sometimes violent protests, coming up with the funding for those efforts looks more than challenging enough for now.