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Durban Climate Talks

Air Date: Week of

Durban, South Africa will be host to this year’s United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The international climate summit is set to begin in Durban, South Africa. The global community will continue to tackle the issue of climate change and how industrialized nations can help developing countries reduce their emmissions. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists tells host Steve Curwood that China will play a key role in the talks this year and that the world economic situation will add an additional hurdle to the talks.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results - you might conclude that the international community has, indeed, gone mad.

Every year, negotiators convene to debate urgent steps they must take to tackle rising greenhouse gas emissions, and the increasingly real climate disruption they're causing.

The nations make agreements to cut emissions. Almost twenty years ago, there was the Framework Convention, then the Kyoto Protocol, the Bali Action Plan, the Cancun Agreements…but despite the talk, emissions continue to rise.

Now, the climate caravan has rolled into Durban, South Africa, and we turn to longtime observer Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists to learn what possible progress we could see this time around. Welcome to Living on Earth, Alden.

MEYER: Hi, Steve. Good to be with you.

CURWOOD: Tell me, what are the goals for these upcoming climate talks in Durban?

MEYER: Two things. First of all, we would need to make progress on the decisions made last year at the climate summit in Cancun - things like actually getting a green climate fund up and running to provide assistance to developing countries for reducing deforestation, deploying clean energy technology and adapting to the impacts of climate change that many of them are already starting to experience.

Second, we need to have a political deal on the long-term future of the climate regime. And without some framework and some agreement for how we are going to build on Kyoto, bring in countries like the U.S. and China that don’t have obligations under Kyoto and create a more ambitious and comprehensive regime, it’s likely that even the European Union will have a hard time signaling in Durban that it’s willing to stay in the Kyoto Protocol long-term.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about the Kyoto Protocol. The first commitment period of Kyoto is set to expire at the end of 2012. What will happen after that?

Alden Meyer is Director of Strategy and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. (Photo: Union of Concerned Scientists)

MEYER: Well, the Kyoto Protocol will continue, of course. There’s nothing to end that. But without any countries having binding commitments beyond 2012, it becomes kind of a hollow shell. The Europeans have said they are willing to stay in Kyoto. Countries like Japan, Russia and Canada have signaled very clearly over the past year or two that they are not willing to stay in the second commitment period of Kyoto beyond 2012.

They want to see it replaced by a more comprehensive and ambitious treaty that includes the U.S., China, other major developing countries. And the United States has made it very clear that without clear signals from developing countries that they will accept legally binding commitments at the end of the day, the U.S. might be prepared to block such a mandate coming out of Durban.

CURWOOD: So, what do you see as the role of China in these talks?

MEYER: China plays a key role in these talks because, of course, it has overtaken the United States now as the world’s number one emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, and also because its emissions are increasing rapidly.

It also, of course, is putting a lot of money into clean energy technology - solar, wind, advanced vehicles and batteries, etc., and I think China is at a turning point where it needs to step up and show the same kind of leadership internationally that it has started to show domestically in terms of committing to try to constrain its growing emissions of greenhouse gasses.

CURWOOD: China has said: No, no, no, it’s not going to do anything unless the U.S. is involved publicly. Privately, are they more flexible, do you think?

MEYER: Well, I think China has been indicating more flexibility, not to the U.S. necessarily, but to the European Union, who is the sort of lead country here negotiating the future of Kyoto with the developing countries. And there has been some signals behind the scenes, we understand from those private conversations, of some flexibility from China. China acknowledges that it is going to have to take on greater responsibility over time, as it is now the world’s largest emitter.

CURWOOD: And what role do you think the world’s economic woes are playing in these climate negotiations?

MEYER: Well it’s, I think, a distraction on a number of fronts. One is, of course, on the climate finance front. When you’re struggling in Europe to save the Euro and prevent the collapse of economies like Greece and Italy, you have a hard time thinking about raising more money. But, to their credit, they are talking about that and they do have political support in the European Union for going forward on climate finance.

Second, of course, when you are facing economic hard times, it makes it hard to think about lifting the level of ambition in terms of emissions reduction and mitigation actions.

And third, and this is also important, the fact that many of the European leaders who have traditionally been champions on this issue and pushing for progress are distracted politically by their internal crisis. So, leaders like Prime Minister Cameron of the UK or President Sarkozy or Chancellor Merkel have other bigger fish to fry on their plates, and they’re not putting the kind of time and attention in that Europe did, for example, in the run up to Kyoto or in some of the other key meetings.

CURWOOD: What about the United States? What do you see as the role of the United States in these talks?

MEYER: Well, I mean, the U.S., of course, is not under Kyoto. We don't have a binding commitment and, of course, that has rankled a lot of the rest of the world. We clearly have the technology and the wherewithal to reduce our emissions if we put our mind to it. But, of course, the U.S. is hobbled by the domestic political debate where many in the Republican party and even some Democrats question the reality and the urgency of climate change and whether we have to move forward.

And the administration knows it would be very difficult to get, for example, two thirds of the Senate to ratify a binding treaty anywhere in the near term. So, they don’t have a lot to bring to the table in terms of higher ambition of emissions reductions or greater financial contributions for developing countries, and yet they’re trying to shape the outcome of these talks to their liking.

CURWOOD: Twenty years into this process, Alden Meyer, are you a pessimist or an optimist?

MEYER: I am a cautious optimist because I think I have to be to stay in this business, otherwise I’d go crazy. You really have to look at some of the positive trends - the fact that investment in clean energy technology worldwide is increasing at double digit rates every year, costs of wind turbines, photovoltaics, other clean energies are falling. So there are bright spots, but the problem is, of course, they’re not enough and fast enough to deal with the science and the physical crisis that the climate system is facing, so that’s the pessimistic side. But you either stay in this game and keep fighting for progress where you can make it or you hang up your spurs and go home and I’m not ready to do that yet.

CURWOOD: Alden Meyer, thank you so much.

MEYER: Thank you, Steve.

CURWOOD: Alden Meyer is Director of Strategy and Policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.



Union of Concerned Scientists

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


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