Durban or Bust
Another year, another climate COP. This year’s conference of the parties (COP) is in Durban, South Africa. The South Africans have provided a wonderful venue and the meeting has proceeded thus far with few of the histrionics of Copenhagen and Cancun. But a certain weariness has crept into the proceedings, as massive numbers of people gather year after year, with little to show for their efforts. Global emissions continue to grow (2010 set a new record) and the science of climate change becomes ever stronger (even a skeptical group at Berkeley recently concluded that climate scientists had not distorted the temperature record). But rising temperatures have failed to thaw the international negotiating process, where progress remains glacial (at best).
This year’s meeting has extra urgency, given the expiration of the Kyoto Protocol’s emission reduction targets next year. African countries have pledged not to allow the Kyoto Protocol to die on African soil. But a chain of dominoes could topple their efforts. The European Union has said it would agree to a new commitment period under Kyoto only if the other major economies (read the United States, China and perhaps India) agree to launch a new round of negotiations to develop a treaty setting binding limits on their emissions. The United States has said that it would be willing to go along with a new round of negotiations, but only if the mandate makes clear that a new agreement would apply symmetrically to all of the major economies. Meanwhile, China has seemed to say that it would be willing to accept emissions targets in 2020, but that new negotiations should not begin until 2016, after a review has been completed of what has been done to date. And India seems unwilling to go down the legally-binding route at all. So finding an equation that accommodates all of these variables poses a significant challenge. Many expect it to be impossible, which would make the “success” of Durban dependent on whether, at the end, the European Union caves — an outcome that one can usually bank on in the climate negotiations, but which appears less certain here.
If Durban fails to save the Kyoto Protocol, then the Rio+20 meeting in June will provide the last opportunity. This prospect has reportedly made Brazil, in particular, extremely nervous (and hence eager to reach a deal here), since nothing would be more likely to spoil Rio+20 than injecting climate change into the meeting.