Biggest Polluters Sign on at Durban Climate Talks

 After nearly two weeks of United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa, a last-minute agreement was reached which proponents deemed an “historic breakthrough to save the planet”. Nonprofit organizations, politicians and others which lobbied for strict emissions cuts with consequences and a clearer roadmap, on the other hand, denied that a real “deal” was reached, claiming the delegates “watered things down so everyone could get on board” and even that it was a “failure”. In the final moments of the meeting, the ‘Durban Platform for Enhanced Action’ was delicately worded so all countries could accept the legal form, however begrudgingly. The big news is that China, India and the US – the three largest greenhouse gas emitters not covered under Kyoto – finally accepted that the rest of the world (including the climate) could not wait any longer for them to act and to be held accountable.

The US has typically been against signing onto any legal framework or targeted emissions cuts unless China and developing nations also take part. China has argued that it is still a developing country and should not be held to the same emissions standards as the US and Europe while it continues industrialization. However, the European Union and smaller countries (particularly those that will be significantly impacted by climate change) grew tired of the lack of participation by the world’s largest emissions emitters, and coerced China, India and the US to agree on language that would give all parties mandates for compliance. The Platform constrains all parties to “a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force” to be decided in 2015 and that will come into force in 2020. For those countries most impacted by climate change, the long wait for enforcement in 2020 will not be soon enough to mitigate droughts or floods, or to save some small islands states (which are plentiful in the Pacific) from rising sea level.

As the “only binding climate instrument with specific emission targets”, the Kyoto Protocol commits the worst emitters to reduce emissions, with a heavier burden placed on developed countries. As the Kyoto Protocol is due to expire next year, the Durban talks kept the agreement alive, with the EU agreeing on a second commitment from 2013 “so that the world has a legal treaty to cut emissions in place before 2020”. The EU has taken pride in their leadership role in reducing emissions to mitigate climate change, even when Canada, Japan, Russia, and others are not ready. The European Parliament’s environment committee chairman suggested that the US and China have been playing a “ping-pong game” which “hijacked” the past three climate meetings. Nonetheless, the Europeans believe their diplomatic efforts have successfully put China, India and the US on “a roadmap that will secure an overarching deal”.

The ‘roadmap,’ will take time to develop. Between now and 2020, only Europe and a few developed countries “are legally bound to cutting carbon emissions through a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.” Given that the economic crisis has made many Americans feel that climate change is no longer an important issue it is difficult to foresee the US following through and signing onto an eventual legal framework. Meanwhile China, India and the US only have voluntary targets to follow until 2020.

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