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Racing the Clock at the Cancun Climate Talks

As the climate talks in Cancun head into the final days, the conference has taken on a different tone.

The casual side events and informal conversations have given way to serious discussions and intense negotiations. Ministers and their delegations are in meetings – working through the issues and debating the “texts” (the actual language of a potential agreement). Advocates from various NGOs are engaged, pushing for progress and helping broker solutions.

I spent most of the day in the Moon Palace, the main conference center, working along a row of tables with fellow colleagues from around the world. Information trickled along slowly– news reports popping up and people occasionally leaning over to ask the question of the day: “Have you heard anything?

The reality is that it’s hard to get a firm read on how things are going. One moment someone comes out of a room shaking his head. Then another emerges talking about progress on a key element of a deal. People move quickly, talk in low voices, and return to the negotiating rooms.

There have been a few signs of signs of tangible progress as well. Yesterday, there was nearly a deal on REDD+ -- which may not please everyone, but would mark progress on a key piece of the overall puzzle. Today, Jairam Ramesh, India’s environmental minister, announced that India could enter into a “legally binding agreement” though, like many things here, his message was nuanced. Brazil also had some upbeat remarks , as Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado, the nation’s climate envoy, said, “Parties are engaging. I am very hopeful that we will get to a good outcome tomorrow.”

On the other hand, Japan’s position around the Kyoto Protocol continues to be an impediment to progress. Despite calls from world leaders, Japan is holding firm that it will not enter into a second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol (the first commitment period is set to expire in 2012). Finding a solution to this issue, including a way to resolve Japan’s concerns, will be a key over the final hours.

Another critical issue, climate finance, continues to play a major role in the overall scenario— and groups are working hard to find a solution or at least to identify a pathway forward. One colleague told me that there’s general excitement about setting up a climate fund, but the details are proving to be difficult to work out. This is another item to watch.

As the day wears on, people hunker down. Ministers and negotiators appear in hallways and then dart back into meetings. Reporters hover over their computers, blackberries and iPhones. In a somewhat surreal moment, Daryl Hannah (star of 1980s films Splash and Blade Runner), walks by— she’s here in Cancun to lend her voice to the issue.

Day turns to night, and people continue to wonder if the international community will be able to make enough progress to show that it can take on the challenge of climate change. At this point, no one is making predictions. The only sure bet is that we’re heading for a couple of long days and nights before we know the answer.

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