The latest round of negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (or UNFCCC) wrapped up over the weekend. Actually the talks, meant to strike an agreement on a follow-up to the Kyoto Protocols that limit global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, were suppose to end on Friday, but went on for an additional day and a half to allow delegates to hammer out a final agreement.
This is being spun in a lot of the media coverage of the talks as a win for the environment, since for the first time all of the 195 nations in attendance agreed in principle to be bound by legally-binding caps on future greenhouse gas emissions. But you need to read past the headlines on what was actually agreed upon for the full story: first a three-year band-aid was slapped on Kyoto, extending the provisions of the soon-to-expire treaty out to 2015; then the UNFCCC parties agreed to “discuss” a legally-binding pact that would impose emission caps on major GHG emitters that would kick in by 2020. String that all together and you get an agreement with more wiggle room than a six-year old's front tooth.
The parties in the UNFCCC were to have spent the past two years negotiating a replacement for the Kyoto Protocols to go into effect in 2013, once Kyoto expires. But the negotiating sessions – Copenhagen, Mexico and now Durban – have all been exercises in delaying action until the next round of discussions. There's no reason to think this pattern is now going to change during the next three years of “discussions”, especially since the core disagreements remain: the big polluters of the developing world, China and India, argue that it is not fair that they be held to the same emissions standards as the developed world, while the developed world's top emitter, the United States, ably assisted by our less polluting, but more vocal sidekick, Canada (which just pulled out of Kyoto entirely), argue that any future agreement is meaningless unless it binds all top emitters – be they developed or developing – to the same standard. It's hard to see either side moving from their position during the next three years, not to mention that even if President Obama, in a second-term effort at legacy-building, were to sign onto a binding agreement, it is unlikely Congress would ratify it since some Congressmen view Global Warming as something akin to voodoo and/or a Commie plot to enslave America. Durban also established a $100 billion fund to help developing nations to offset the costs of climate change (another reason why it is viewed as a “win”), though one country who feels that they may be entitled to payment from the fund is mega-wealthy Saudi Arabia, who argue they should be compensated for possiblefuture reductions in crude oil sales as the world moves on to greener sources of energy.
Frankly, I have a hard time then viewing Durban as anything more than another kick of the proverbial can down the road. As a friend said, when it comes to the topic of climate change, there are no adults in the room to make the hard choices necessary to actually accomplish something. Countries will talk about the need to mitigate climate change, but will stop short of any action that could impact the quality of life at home (and thus reduce their leaders chances of staying in power). And until the day comes that nations/leaders can act in the global interest rather than their own self-serving ones, we'll see more Durbans and more empty promises of change “sometime” down the road.