Beyond the Durban Climate Talks

To Fix the Environment, Fix the Negotiations

Four years ago, the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called evidence for the warming of the climate system "unequivocal." More recently, scientists at MIT calculated that business-as-usual emissions portend a 50 percent chance that the earth's average surface temperature will increase at least 9.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Yet negotiations to find a global solution to this problem, primarily under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, have yielded little. The last two annual sessions (called Conferences of the Parties, or COPs) agreed on vague generalities but essentially postponed resolving disputed details. Even the biggest boosters of the process hold out little hope for concrete achievements at the next COP in Durban, South Africa, which will begin late November.

UNFCCC negotiations involve a bigger basket of issues than most multinational talks -- including weaning whole economies off coal and oil, protecting disappearing forests, saving the small island states that are likely to be underwater within a few decades, and managing all the related costs. They are also an inclusive process, involving 194 countries -- polluters, victims and everyone in-between -- all of which officially have equal weight in the proceedings. Given the urgency of the issue and the glacial pace of progress, there may be reason to consider alternatives."

The UNFCCC was created at the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio, and entered into force in 1994. Developed countries were to "take the lead" in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and provide support to help developing countries meet their economic development goals sustainably.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, rejected by the United States, put flesh on the UNFCCC's bones. Annex I countries -- industrialized countries that were OECD members in 1992, plus former Soviet bloc economies in transition -- agreed to emissions reduction targets. Developing countries (non-Annex I nations) -- China and India, for example -- were held to more limited obligations. And all were allowed to meet their targets in any way they wanted.

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