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Solving the Climate Puzzle in Cancún

What will it take to put the pieces together in the international climate negotiations?

As negotiators arrive in Cancun, Mexico, for two weeks of climate talks, a sense of uncertainty but determination is in the air. The past year has seen slow progress on the negotiations, but now comes the moment when the members of the party need to start putting the puzzle together. There’s uncertainty about whether the parties will be able to complete the picture; but determination because they recognize the stakes are high both for the climate and for the UNFCCC.

As is the case with any large puzzle with over 1000 pieces and over 190 players, one needs to start with the edges and work inwards. Trust will allow the frame of the puzzle to come together. There are good opportunities to build trust around some of the relatively easier sections, like technology, adaptation, REDD+ and finance decisions. As these questions are more or less resolved, players will be able to start working on the inner parts – including resolving how, when and by whom, the pieces will be put in place. The harder sections, like clarifying transparency and mitigation, can be fit in as parties work toward the center. And, finally, questions about the future of the two tracks of negotiations (the Kyoto Protocol and Long-term Cooperative Action, or LCA) and the legal form of the agreement will need to be worked out if we are to complete the puzzle, even if it is just to identify a process to determine the legal form over time.

As with any puzzle with over 1000 pieces and over 190 players, one needs to start with the edges and work inwards.

While many observers will focus attention on two big players – the United States and China – they should also watch other countries that can be helpful in putting pieces in place. One new player to watch is the Cartegena Group, some thirty developed and developing countries working together to find compromises and solutions to difficult parts of the deal. Comprised of countries like Costa Rica, the Maldives, Colombia and a number of European countries, they are collaborating and making proposals for compromises for the larger group. If these countries can work together and make progress on key sections of the puzzle, it should inspire others to do the same.

Some other players to watch include India, South Africa, Brazil and the European Union. Seeing how India moves forward on one section of the puzzle – transparency around what developing countries are reporting and resolving what “international consultation and analysis” means – will provide signals for the end game. South Africa and Brazil, both hosts of important meetings in the coming year and a half, have to step forward from their current positions and provide solutions. Their key pieces are likely to be around mitigation and what to do with the Copenhagen pledges, which will hopefully help build coalitions around common solutions and bring less-willing countries along. And, one must ask about the EU, which in past climate negotiations has been a key player in solving some difficult sections. Can the EU rise above internal politics which are focused on internal financial crises and budgets and work in partnership with developing countries – small and large – to bring the negotiations a step forward?

If all of these players are successful, they can help set the table so that both China and the United States can join the game and help create the final picture. These two players will need to engage, but not dominate, and be productive participants in order to build momentum on an international climate agreement. Progress is possible in Cancun, but we need to hope no one comes along and bumps the table before the puzzle pieces are firmly in place.

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