South Africa's foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, is seen… (Schalk van Zuydam / Associated…)
In a surprise turn on Saturday, the 194 countries attending the U.N. climate talks in Durban, South Africa, agreed on a new process that could result in legally binding measures to control global warming. The agreement, which came 36 hours after the conference was scheduled to end, lifted a conference otherwise marked by the absence of a clear road map forward.
The agreement kicked off a “process to develop a protocol, another legal instrument, or outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all Parties.” In other words, a non-binding agreement to re-commit to a binding agreement. The target is to have an agreement by 2015.
Activists and member nation representatives cautiously hailed the move as a bit more progress than was achieved in Cancun in 2010 and Copenhagen in 2009.
Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, attended the conference and reports that, finally, industrially developed nations and the developing world are part of the same agreement. In 1997, the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 against ratifying the Kyoto protocol, mostly because China – now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases – was not bound by the agreement and would thus have a perceived unfair economic advantage.
“It’s been one of the key sticking points for a number of years: whether or not the developing world would have to take on commitments and a new agreement,” Schmidt says. “It doesn’t finalize that, but it does send a pretty good signal that if there’s going to be a new legal agreement, it’ll have to contain commitments from developing countries in the same legal form.”
In Durban, the push for action came from developing nations and those most affected by global warming. The European Union, which has been working under the Kyoto treaty, was under significant pressure from those nations to negotiate an extension of the Kyoto provisions, some of which expire in 2012 – just to keep the international process alive. The EU said it would only do that if there was a signal that a legally binding agreement by all countries – including the U.S., China, India and others – could be achieved. Host country South Africa helped hold everyone’s feet to the fire and extended the conference once this seemed within reach.
India was the last holdout but didn’t want to be the country to kill the deal and finally agreed.
This “process” is not legally binding but was agreed to in the plenary, so countries do have some incentive to stick to the deal.
“It’s the fact that they have other issues on which they want to deal with each other, and the name-and-shame aspect that will push countries to at least negotiate,” Schmidt says.
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, celebrated the agreement with a statement Sunday: “I am pleased that the nations meeting in Durban have agreed to develop a legally binding commitment that applies to all countries. The agreements reached today also require better transparency and more accountability. This is a step forward in the effort to avoid dangerous climate change.”
The next full meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is in December 2012 in Qatar.
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