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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

After the Durban Climate Conference

Air Date: Week of

Late Sunday, delegates from around the world left without agreeing on limiting global warming. The King Shaka International Airport in Durban. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Many of the delegates at the Durban climate talks have returned home and are congratulating themselves on a job well done. They agreed on a roadmap forward, but disagreed on almost everything else. Dr. Johannes Urpelainen is an assistant professor of Political Science at Columbia. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that while many countries consider themselves winners, the planet is losing.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it's Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The recent UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa went into double over-time, resulting in frayed tempers, blood shot eyes and what is being called the Durban Platform. Essentially, there are three major pillars to the platform - Pillar one:

ANNOUNCER: Nations will negotiate a treaty by 2015 leading to a legally binding agreement requiring all countries to cut carbon emissions by 2020.

GELLERMAN: Pillar two:

ANNOUNCER: The current climate agreement - the Kyoto Protocol - is extended for five more years.

GELLERMAN: But the US never ratified Kyoto, and Canada is pulling out of the treaty; - and finally Pillar three:

ANNOUNCER: The UN will create a Green Climate Fund of one hundred billion dollars a year to help poor countries cope with climate change.

GELLERMAN: But The Green Climate Fund is a fund without funds and there is no mechanism for raising the money. Johannes Urpelainen teaches political science at Columbia University. He says the Durban Platform produced winners and losers.

URPELAINEN: First of all I think we can all agree that the global climate is one of the losers. That this is not the kind of agreement that is really solving the problem. You can clearly see that the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change are losers, so these African countries, the low-lying island nations. But, at the same time, from a sort of political perspective, it seems to me that some of these negotiators are actually going back to their domestic constituencies and telling them that they’ve actually won.

So, the European Union interprets this as a historic precedent, because we, for the first time, have a real agreement to negotiate a global treaty. The United States says that it’s a victory for them, because they did not commit to anything unless China and India also act. And China and India say that it was also a victory for them because they did not commit to anything until the industrialized countries have moved. So, everybody is going back and saying that they got exactly what they wanted.

GELLERMAN: Something for everyone, but meanwhile, the emissions go up and the temperatures go up as well.

URPELAINEN: Exactly. Sometimes you get the sense when you look at these negotiations and you’re not having a very good day, you get the feel that a lot of this is more like a performance than a sustentative negotiation.

GELLERMAN: So, what would you do? The United Nations - is that the forum for future negotiations? Is there an alternative?

Dr. Johannes Urpelainen (Photo: Wikimedia)

URPELAINEN: This is a difficult a difficult question, and I’m not quite sure what the, sort of, right way to go would be. I don't think the United Nations negotiations themselves are sort of directly harmful. I mean, they do create this legal system for future commitments, and if they can mobilize some resources in this Green Climate Fund, I think that could be very helpful because then developing countries would have much stronger incentive to participate in the system.

But I do believe that it would be equally and probably even more important for, sort of, smaller groups of countries - like the United States, European Union, Japan, China - to begin working together, not on having some plan of a grand treaty 10 or 20 years from now, but begin deploying clean technology, energy efficiency, doing these kinds of concrete small steps to change the way the energy game is played in different places.

GELELRMAN: So if there’s something in the Durban Platform for everybody, depending on your perspective, can we anticipate that the process is going to go on pretty much as it has?

URPELAINEN: I think so, at least for a while, because, now they again have another four years of breathing space. So, they can now waste a few more years not necessarily achieving much. Then I guess, the pressure, at some point, will build up and then depending on the political realities and economics and all that, at that time, either we will make some meaningful progress, or we’ll make some progress, or alternatively we’ll have a few more of these Copenhagen, Durban-style agreements where they agree only on more negotiation.

GELLERMAN: You’re from Finland, right?


GELLERMAN: What are they saying about the Durban Platform in Finland?

URPELAINEN: There’s some interesting discussion there. So, some groups, some environmental groups, some commentators who have been following this for a long time have been quite disappointed and they have highlighted the fact that they’re already sort of moving far away from their idea of limiting climate change - global warming - to two degrees Celsius, which is the sort of scientific, basic goal that many of the groups endorsed.

But others have then said that it’s a meaningful kind of continuation of the process, and these are often the people who have a sort of strong belief in the United Nations. Which, by the way, in small countries like Finland, often is a much stronger sentiment than for example in the United States.

GELLERMAN: Well, professor, thanks a lot!

URPELAINEN: Thank you very much!

GELLERMAN: Johannes Urpelainen is an assistant professor of political science at Columbia University. Well, it seems that pledge that climate negotiators made two years ago in Copenhagen to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels, is a thing of the past.



Dr. Urpelainen asks the question: “Climate Negotiations in Durban: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full, and Does It Really Matter?”


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