Governments from around the world agreed to negotiate a new climate-change treaty at a United Nations meeting held earlier this month, in Durban, South Africa. But not everyone is celebrating, given the UN climate meetings’ history of incremental progress.
If nations can hammer out the new treaty, it would require countries that are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, including the U.S. and China, to control their releases. Past climate accords have called for emissions cuts only by industrialized countries.
“This is a different ball game,” says Todd D. Stern, U.S. special envoy for climate change.
Under the Durban agreement, “we will now get a system that reflects the reality of today’s mutually interdependent world,” says Connie Hedegaard, European Union commissioner for climate action.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a longtime proponent of domestic action to combat climate change, says the Durban agreement could help pave the way politically for the U.S. to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Congressional lawmakers opposed to greenhouse gas controls will lose their long-held argument that the U.S. should not commit to cutting its emissions because China has no obligation to do so, Kerry says.
Some observers are less optimistic about what the Durban agreement portends. For example, the path to a treaty established in Durban “will be meaningless, and nobody will likely follow through on it,” says Frank V. Maisano, an energy specialist who represents utilities and refiners at the Washington, D.C., law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.
“For this effort to be successful, countries need to be ambitious in their commitments and to refuse to use these negotiations as just another stalling tool,” adds Jennifer A. Haverkamp, director of the international climate program for the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental activist group.
At the Durban talks, the EU played a pivotal role in generating support for a possible new treaty that calls for reductions by all major emitters, observers note. The EU approach was to extend emissions reduction commitments by industrialized countries under the 1997 Kyoto protocol in exchange for developing-world support of negotiations on a future treaty.
The Kyoto protocol, which the U.S. never participated in, requires industrialized countries to reduce their emissions by an average of 5.2% from 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Under the Durban agreement, industrialized countries party to the Kyoto accord have until May 2012 to propose a second round of emissions limits for themselves.
However, Canada, Japan, and Russia have announced they won’t sign up for a second round of emissions cuts under the Kyoto protocol.
Canada’s Conservative Party government took a further step on Dec. 12, announcing that it was withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol. Canada has done little to cut its emissions, and if it fails to meet its commitments, it could face fines under the protocol.