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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Durban Climate Conference

Air Date: Week of December 9, 2011

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The UN climate conference is in Durban South Africa this year. (Photo: Flickr Creative Commons, brunosan)

Negotiations went down to the wire and past it with overtime, but in the end the US, China and India agreed to join a legal regime that will require all countries to limit greenhouse gases by 2020, with details to be further negotiated. The Kyoto Protocol will also continue for Europe. During the final hours Host Bruce Gellerman talked with Jennifer Morgan, the director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman.

[SOUNDS OF MUSIC, PEOPLE LAUGHING AND CHEERING]

GELLERMAN: Climate talks in Durban, South Africa got off on an energetic, positive foot as UN climate officials and politicians took to the stage and got down. Then, when the music was over, they got down to 12 days of tough talks. Typically UN climate summits are annual cliffhangers – with negotiators huddled in hallways and making last minute deals behind closed doors, and this year’s meeting in Durban was no exception. As the drama unfolded inside the convention hall, outside on the streets of Durban environmentalists protested the slow pace of the talks.

[SOUNDS OF PROTESTERS YELLING, "OUR PEOPLE, UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED"]

GELLERMAN: The Durban talks came down to the wire with a lot on the line. Hanging in the balance: the fate of a climate changing world and the future of the UN climate process itself.

Joining me from the climate talks is Alden Meyer.

Hi, Alden.

MEYER: Hi Bruce

GELLERMAN: You must be exhausted. The last few hours, minutes, seconds were very tense at the climate meeting this year.
MEYER: Yeah they were. And of course most of us had been up the last two or three nights. It went all night for a number of the ministers Thursday and then Friday. And then of course around the clock on Saturday. This was the longest conference of the parties so it was a record breaker.

GELLERMAN: So when all was said and done, what was done?

MEYER: Well there are a number of parts to the so-called Durban package. First of all, the European Union, Norway and few other countries decided they would stay in the Kyoto Protocol after the first commitments expire at the end of next year. No change from Japan, Canada and Russia, which have indicated they want to drop out. And of course the deal for that, for Europe agreeing to stay in, was that the U.S., China, India and other countries that don’t currently have any binding commitments under Kyoto need to engage in the negotiation that will start this year, go for three more years and not take effect until 2020.

GELLERMAN: So Kyoto is the only legal binding treaty that we’ve got. That applies to thirty-seven industrial countries, not the developing countries like India or China. And then they want to keep that going for what–another five years? That would take us to 2017, and then start negotiating a new pact that would take effect in 2020.

MEYER: That’s right. They actually punted on the issue of whether the next commitments for Kyoto would be five years or eight years because uh, most of those in Europe, they’ve already legislated their commitments out to 2020, and if you’re not going to have the new negotiating period take effect until 2020, you might as well make it eight years, many of them think. So that will be decided at the next meeting in Bonn this coming May.

But the big deal here is that we were really at a fork in the road. If you hadn’t extended Kyoto and you hadn’t launched the new round of negotiations we would have been going back to the purely voluntary days of the early 1990’s under the Rio Treaty, when countries put on pledges or made promises, but of course–with the exception of the former Soviet Union countries which had deep emissions reductions as a result of the collapse of the economies–none of the rest of the industrialized countries met their promises, so that’s why we had Kyoto. So we really were at a choice point here. And it was good to see them maintain the rules-based multilateral regime, but of course it’s got some holes in it: the coverage will drop from about 28 percent of global emissions down to about 15 or 16 because of Japan, Russia and Canada jumping out. And of course the rest of the world won’t be brought in until nine years down the road. So it’s not ideal, but it’s the best we could have gotten and there was a sigh of relief I think from the small island states, the most vulnerable countries, the European Union and others who want to see climate action when this deal was finally done in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

GELLERMAN: So Japan, Russia, Canada, they’re not going to stay in Kyoto. Is this meaningful in terms of preventing catastrophic climate change?

MEYER: Well I think the other part of this was - it’s not as aggressive as it needed to be in terms of near term reductions. There are a few handles in the part of the Durban package that came out that called for countries to start talking next year about how they could up their game and how maybe we could bring in some sectors that were not covered such as international shipping and aviation. But the reality is we are not on a path to meet the goal that was set in Copenhagen two years ago of holding global temperature increases to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. We are a little under one degree now, so double that, and you will double the impacts that we are seeing now, which are already starting to mount, particularly on the most vulnerable countries So I don’t think there is anyone who came out of Durban who thinks we are doing enough to really come to grips with the catastrophic problem.

GELLERMAN: So Alden is this process, the UN process, any way to save a planet?

MEYER: Well it can’t be, by itself. The reality is there is no international process, no UN body that can force big countries like China, India the U.S., others, to do things that they don’t believe are in their interest. So the bottom line is the action has to start at home. You have to build the political will to do things. But then you have to bring what you are doing into the international regime and collectively decide how you are going to get the world on a path that avoids the worst impacts of climate change. So it is not the ideal, but as Don Rumsfeld said, you fight climate change with regime you have, not the regime you want. I think that is sort of where we are going now.

GELLERMAN: Well Alden, get some sleep.

MEYER: I will indeed. Thanks a lot Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Alden Meyer is Director of Policy and Strategy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
During those last tense hours of negotiations, we reached Jennifer Morgan at the Durban Climate Summit.
She's director of energy and climate programs at the World Resources Institute - and she was feeling a bit bleary-eyed when we called.
MORGAN: Yah, long nights, long days. That’s for sure.

GELLERMAN: And why does it take so long? Why do they always seem to go right down to the wire?

MORGAN: Well, I think there’s a lot at stake here and the decisions that they’re making are not small. So I think it’s a mixture of intense technical details that have to be sorted out; I mean just imagine the forests and how you use your energy and how you count things and how you create funds are all very technical, but then clearly the politics here is incredibly complex as well. And you get into the field of the U.S. versus China’s relationship and how Europe is moving forward despite the Euro crisis and Africa coming in. So if you mix that complexity of politics and policy, it just takes time.

GELLERMAN: Is there the sense that time is running out in terms of climate change - that while they’re kind of fiddling, the world is burning?

MORGAN: Absolutely. I think if you look at the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports on extreme weather or if you look at what the National Academies of Sciences has said about the risks of climate change and irreversible damage, and then you look at that kind of the level of ambition coming out of countries, there’s just a huge gap and that is particularly distressing to Africa and the small island nations.

GELLERMAN: What about the mood of this meeting? Each one has a different sense to it. What’s your sense of the mood?

MORGAN: Well, I think the mood is a mixture of things. I think on the one hand, everyone here is aware of the fact that what this process and what countries are currently committing to do is deeply inadequate in comparison to what the science is telling governments that they need to do. On the other hand though, I think that there is a sense of slight movement or optimism to try and finally resolve this question of the legally binding thing and get the fund up and running and get incremental steps moving.

GELLERMAN: There was some frustration by a young American student, Abigail Borah, who is attending Middlebury College and was in Durban. And she interrupted Todd Stern, the U.S. envoy for climate, during his speech. I want you to listen to that.

BORAH: I am scared for my future. 2020 is too late to wait. We need an urgent path to a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty. You must take responsibility to act now.

GELLERMAN: How did that play there in Durban?

MORGAN: Well, I think that she was very inspirational and spoke the words that many people feel here but that sometimes diplomatic speak doesn’t allow to be said.

GELLERMAN: Talking to us from the UN Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa is Jennifer Morgan; she’s director Energy and Climate Programs at the World Resources Institute. Jennifer, thank you so very much.

MORGAN: Thank you.

 

Links

World Resources Institute

UNFCCC COP17

 

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