Saturday, December 10, 2011

Durban talks go into extra time over contradictory text

As talks over a new UN climate treaty proceeded through extra-time Saturday, with some anticipating a second extra day on Sunday, a deal remains to be done here in Durban. But will the diplomacy match the science or the sheer existential urgency? The page-long draft text for a "Durban mandate", issued by the South African hosts at 11pm local time on Friday evening offers some bizarre contradictions.

It begins dramatically: "Recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet and that this requires to be urgently addressed..."

It goes on by "noting with grave concern the significant gap" between what countries have pledged so far for between now and 2020, and "emissions pathways" that scientists say have a reasonable chance of keeping global warming later in the century below 2 ÂșC.

Reading on, you hold your breath for the promised action. Here it is.

The conference decides to launch a process to develop a protocol or another legal instrument that will encompass all member states. The text, it says, should exist no later than 2015.

Spot the problem? That looks like four years of doing nothing to address the "urgent and potentially irreversible threat" mentioned further up, during which time the "significant gap" between ambition and reality may well increase.

It also adds four years to the four already lost since the last mandate designed to address the same issue, agreed at the equivalent conference in Bali in 2007. That mandate crashed in Copenhagen in 2009.

Meanwhile the Kyoto Protocol, the only existing agreement on cutting emissions, will limp to a close next year. Its diminishing band of members may or may not agree to extend it here, but in any event it now covers nations with only about 15 per cent of the world's emissions.

For those hoping the UN can finally find a formula to prevent dangerous climate change - all member nations signed up to that in 1992 - the outlook is worse even than last time. During the fraught hours of Friday, one important element in the prospective 2015 deal was lost from the discussion text.

The supposed bottom line for most nations here has been that it should include a commitment to legally binding targets for all major emitting nations. With the US and most  developing nations previously refusing to accept binding targets, such a commitment would be a real and potentially planet-saving gain.

But the new text only promises a "legal instrument applicable to all parties". Will that include legally binding targets? If so, why not say so. More likely, sceptics here say, it will prove a loophole for the US and others.

Rumors this morning were that the US and European Union (EU) had accepted the latest wording, but India and China were still considering.

And whatever happened to 2020? Most nations have been saying for days that any deal reached in 2015 must come into force by 2020 at the latest. But that date is nowhere in the new text, nor is any other.

Some fear that, without locking in 2020, an even more distant date looms. Others, including the EU, think that it will have the opposite effect, giving countries an excuse to do nothing further till 2020. On Saturday morning, the US, China and India were asking for the inclusion of 2020. But the EU said it would only agree if those countries commit to doing more to cut their emissions in the meantime.

Michael Dorsey of Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US, a environmental policy analyst who has been following the talks closely, says that an agreement without an obligation to act until after 2020 was "a road map to disaster". To leave the matter open-ended seems bizarre, given the text's blood-curdling preamble.

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