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November 28, 2011

China and United States Put 'Chokehold' on Greenhouse Gas Reform in Durban



As the world’s two biggest world powers face off in a “game of chicken,” the fate of the Kyoto Protocol—and the survival of the Earth’s population—hangs in the balance this week at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa.

Negotiators from the European Union and 191 nations will meet in Durban from November 28 through December 9. Thousands of activists and experts have already arrived on-site to observe, advocate and protest. The meeting is not a summit, but some heads of state will make diplomatic appearances and government ministers from about 100 countries will attend the final days next week.

Signed in 1997 in Japan—and effective as of February 16, 2005—the Kyoto Protocol sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European Community to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an average of five percent by 2012 against 1990 levels. The major distinction between the Protocol and the U.N. Framework Convention is that while the Convention encouraged industrialized countries to stabilize GHG emissions, the Protocol commits them to do so.

The delegates will discuss renewing their commitments, as well as the feasibility of making a fiscal contribution to help the nations that are most vulnerable to flooding and climate-related destruction through a new Green Climate Fund proposed several years ago by Mexican President Felipe Calderon. According to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the fund would help “to catalyze the $100 billion per annum from public and private sources that was pledged through 2020.”

 At the start of the conference, South African President Jacob Zuma pointed to the climate impact on Africa as a reason for all governments to take action.  “We have experienced unusual and severe flooding in coastal areas in recent times, impacting on people directly as they lose their homes, jobs and livelihoods. Given the urgency, governments need to strive to find solutions here in Durban. Change and solutions are always possible, and Durban must take us many steps forward toward a solution that saves tomorrow today,” he said.

The newly elected President of the conference, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, stressed that , “In Durban, we need to show the world that we are ready to tackle and solve our very real problems in a practical manner.”

To date, the world’s two largest polluters, the United States and China, also have been the two biggest “spoilsports” to reaching an accord. The United States, the world's second biggest emitter after China, never ratified the original protocol. Major developing nations with surging economies, such as China and India, were not covered in the first commitment period because they were classified as “emerging economies.” Their emissions have escalated since that time.

 Reuters reports that China's chief climate negotiator is "not very optimistic" about the result of talks in Durban, based on a state radio account, while U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing warned China and other emerging economies, such as India, of the U.S. resolve.

"The structure of a legal agreement in which we are bound and those economies are not is untenable. It will not solve the problem. It will not be accepted in the United States," said Pershing.

Referring to the standoff, UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said at a preliminary press conference on November 27 that finding a solution to climate change required “nothing short of the most compelling energy, industrial and behavioral revolution that humanity has ever seen.”

But, said Figueres, new research and findings are “sounding alarm bells” for urgent action to halt global warming.”

She referred to reports from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

“The World Meteorological Organization has put out a report that the atmosphere has reached record levels of greenhouse gases,” she stated, further noting, “The IPCC just adopted its report on extreme weather events, and it has concluded that hot days are becoming hotter and will occur more often.”

Figueres seemed more optimistic about the odds of renewing the Kyoto Protocol than others in Durban. “I believe that there will be very serious effort here in Durban to move into a second commitment period,” she said.  Asked whether she thought the Durban conference could defer a decision on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, Figueres replied: “In principle they could do that, but I don’t see any interest in doing that.”

Many observers believe the participants are unlikely to agree on a second commitment period, and say that the most likely outcome of the Convention would be to lay a foundation for future progress. Some say this could take up to 2020.

South Africa’s Environment Minister Edna Molewa, warned last week that this “low level” of ambition among countries to reduce their emissions could see world temperatures soaring. “Where we are now, we’ll be between three to four degrees,” she predicted.

"Kyoto alone cannot save the planet ... countries are running away from the Kyoto Protocol," EU climate negotiator Artur Runge-Metzger told a news conference in Durban. The EU is willing to sign up for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol but other signatories, including Russia, Japan and Canada, are not, said Reuters (News - Alert).

The EU said any deal would be almost meaningless unless the majority of emitters signed on. Without agreement in numbers, Runge-Metzger said: "People will lose confidence in this traveling circus."

The 1997 accord currently limits about a quarter of the world's carbon emissions, and that would fall to about 15 percent if only the EU and a handful of other countries signed up to a second round of targets after 2012. Climate change conferences in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun in 2010 ended without a plan for a new global deal and analysts have low expectations for progress in Durban.


Cheryl Kaften is an accomplished communicator who has written for consumer and corporate audiences. She has worked extensively for MasterCard (News - Alert) Worldwide, Philip Morris USA (Altria), and KPMG, and has consulted for Estee Lauder and the Philadelphia Inquirer Newspapers. To read more of her articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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