New York Times: With intensifying climate disasters and global economic turmoil as the backdrop, delegates from 194 nations will gather in Durban, South Africa, starting Monday to try to advance, if only incrementally, the world’s response to dangerous climate change.
To those who have followed the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change over their nearly 20-year history, the conflicts and controversies to be taken up in Durban are monotonously familiar: the differing obligations of industrialized and developing nations, the question of who will pay to help poor nations adapt, the urgency of protecting tropical forests, the need to rapidly develop and deploy clean energy technology.
The negotiating process itself is under fire from some quarters, including the poorest nations who believe their needs are being neglected in the fight among the major economic powers. Criticism is also coming from a relatively small but vocal band of climate-change skeptics, many of them sitting members of the United States Congress, who doubt the existence of human influence on the climate and ridicule international efforts to deal with it.
But scientists warn that this squabbling serves only to delay actions that must be taken to reduce climate-altering emissions and to improve vulnerable nations’ ability to respond to the changes they say are surely coming.
“I feel we are losing completely the scientific rationale for action,” said Rajendra K. Pachauri, director of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global body of scientists and statisticians that provides the technical underpinning of the United Nations talks. He noted that the group had recently released a detailed assessment of the increasing frequency of extreme climate events like droughts, floods and cyclones, and of the necessity of moving quickly to take steps to reduce emissions and adapt to the inevitable damage.
“All of these indicate that inaction in dealing with climate change and delays would only expose human society and all living species to risk that could become serious,” Dr. Pachauri wrote in an e-mail. He said he was afraid the conference would “only focus on short-term political considerations.”
The Durban meeting is formally known as COP17, for the 17th conference of the parties to the United Nations convention on climate change.
Delegates in Durban will be addressing relatively small and, to many, arcane questions of process and finance. Negotiators, having entered the United Nations climate talks at Copenhagen two years ago with grand ambitions and having left with disillusion, are now defining expectations down and hoping to keep the process alive through modest steps.
Last year in Cancún, Mexico, delegates produced an agreement that set up a fund to help poor countries adapt to climate changes, created mechanisms for the transfer of clean-energy technology, provided compensation for the preservation of tropical forests and enshrined the emissions reductions promises that came out of the Copenhagen meeting.
Negotiators postponed until Durban the politically freighted question of whether to extend the frayed Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement that requires most wealthy nations to trim their emissions while providing help to developing countries to pursue a cleaner energy path. Also still on the agenda are the structure of, and the sources of financing for, a climate adaptation and technology fund that is supposed to reach $100 billion a year by 2020.
One of the issues that is most contentious and least likely to be resolved involves the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which requires the major industrialized nations to meet targets on emissions reduction but imposes no mandates on developing countries, including emerging economic powers and sources of global greenhouse gas emissions like China, India, Brazil and South Africa.
The United States is not a party to the protocol, having refused to even consider ratifying it because of those asymmetrical obligations. Some major countries, including Canada, Japan and Russia, have said they will not agree to an extension of the protocol next year unless the unbalanced requirements of developing and developed countries are changed. That is similar to the United States’ position, which is that any successor treaty must apply equally to all major economies.
But the European Union, the major developing countries, and most African and Pacific island nations would like to see the Kyoto process extended as a prelude to a binding international agreement after 2020 to reduce emissions so as to keep the average global temperature from ever rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above its current level.
Todd Stern, the chief American climate negotiator, said he was flexible as to the form such a future agreement would take and even the time frame for reaching it, though he expects it will be after 2020, once the various Kyoto and Cancún agreements have run their course. He said that all countries, including the United States, must take meaningful unilateral steps to control their carbon dioxide emissions. The obligations are greatest among the 20 or so largest economies, which are responsible for more than 80 percent of global carbon output.
“In reality, the most effective thing we can do to address climate change is for all relevant countries to act vigorously at home,” Mr. Stern said in an interview, noting that most countries have adopted emissions targets or national action plans that will be followed regardless of the status of the negotiations toward a binding future agreement.
“At the same time,” Mr. Stern added, “climate is a classic global commons problem, where each country needs confidence that others are acting, so international cooperation is important, and this then takes you to the core international issue: you can’t rationally address this problem at the international level unless you get all the major economies, developed and developing, acting in a common system.”
The United States has been criticized at these gatherings for years, in part because of its rejection of the Kyoto framework and in part because it has not adopted a comprehensive domestic program for reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions. President Obama has pledged to reduce American emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, but his preferred approach, a nationwide cap-and-trade system for carbon pollution, failed spectacularly in Congress in 2010. United States emissions are down about 6 percent over the past five years, largely because of the drop in industrial and electricity production caused by the recession.
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