3 Ways to Salvage Upcoming Global Climate Talks

Despite intransigence from China and the U.S. -- the world's two leading polluters -- the Durban conference can still do some good

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Activists from the WWF demonstrate on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference COP16 in Cancun / Reuters

As delegates from nearly 200 countries prepare to descend on Durban, South Africa next week for the seventeenth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), pessimism runs high. Privately, the leaders of major established and emerging economies concede that no new climate treaty containing binding emissions reductions will be negotiated before 2016. And even if an agreement were reached, it would not come into force until 2020--eight years from now. This bleak outlook comes despite warnings from scientists and economists about the dangers of delaying dramatic action to mitigate the planet's warming.

Just this week, the UN World Meteorological Association reported that the volume of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere reached a new record during 2010. And emissions appear to be accelerating, with carbon dioxide rising by 2.3 parts per million over the past year--a significant jump from the average (2.0) over the past decade. According to the U.S. Energy Department, recent increases in global carbon emissions exceed the worst-case projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).   Adding to the warnings, a recent IPCC report predicts that dramatic planetary warming during this century is "virtually certain." Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, warns that the world has a brief, five-year window to stop a worldwide mean temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius: "If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put into place by 2017, then the door to will be closed forever." Two degrees Celsius may seem like a small rise, but scientists regard it as a critical threshold, beyond which the world will face more extreme weather such as melting icecaps, devastating droughts, and torrential rainfall and flooding. And without significant efforts toward mitigation, global temperatures could rise even more.

The reasons for the diplomatic deadlock are plain. Major parties to Kyoto, including Japan, Russia, and Canada, have already signaled that they will not take on a second commitment because China and the United States--the world's top two polluters--are not included in it. The European Union (EU) is prepared to sign up for a second round, but it insists that major developing countries, whose emissions are surging as their economies grow, must embrace and follow through on real commitments. The EU's preference is to negotiate "a single global and comprehensive legally binding instrument" including all emitters, though it would countenance an "interim" solution whereby major emerging countries would accept a "road map" and timetable for treaty commitments. Even this fall-back position faces resistance from the so-called "BASIC" caucus--Brazil, South Africa, India, and China--who are disinclined to accept binding targets that might jeopardize their domestic growth and development goals.

Presented by

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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