China and Kyoto loom large in final week of climate talks
A softening of China's position at climate talks this week could make a big difference as ministers take over negotiations in Durban aimed at finding a binding international agreement to tackle global warming.
China's stance appears decisive at climate talks in Durban as ministers from around the world prepare to take over the high-level end of negotiations on Tuesday.
Attention has been fixed on the fate of the world's only legally binding treaty to cut carbon dioxide emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, amid deep divisions over whether to extend the agreement when its first commitment period expires next year.
On Monday, China's chief negotiator Xie Zhenua was quoted on a government-run website as saying that his country was open to post 2020 targets to curb emissions, a policy that would mark a significant shift in the country's negotiating position.
In her assessment of the talks, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres described last week's negotiations as "constructive and productive" without elaborating on concrete gains.
"There are no promises because all of this is still a work in progress," Figueres told reporters on Monday.
She said it was her understanding that countries were "very seriously considering how do they bring a second commitment period into effect, and not whether."
The European Union has indicated it is willing to increase its emissions target to 30 percent below 1990 levels as part of a second round of Kyoto.
EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said the bloc had so far "over-achieved" its target and did not stand in the way of a more ambitious deal.
The EU currently aims to cut emissions by 20 percent by the end of the decade. Europe's raised target rested on other parties making their pledges binding.
In the face of Canadian, Japanese and Russian opposition to Kyoto in its current form, Hedegaard said the EU "supported" the treaty but needed to see countries like China embrace a timetable for accepting binding emissions cuts.
Critics of Kyoto point out that it does not cover the world's two biggest emitters, China and the United States, and that developing countries outside the treaty's rules account for a growing proportion of the world's emissions.
China's massive investment in renewable energies and efficiency measures, anchored in its latest five-year plan, have prompted some to hope that it will accept limits on its emissions, even though it has historically contributed little to climate change compared to rich countries.
Hedegaard said much of the talks hinged on just how willing China was to accept binding rules in coming years.
"China has always been in favor of a legally binding outcome, the key question…is: Will a legally binding deal also mean that China is equally legally bound?" Hedegaard said. more
UN climate talks looking to China
By Richard Black Environment correspondent, BBC News, Durban
5 December 2011
China is emerging as the key deal-maker or deal-breaker as the UN climate talks head into ministerial discussions.
China's delegates here have said they are willing in principle to take part in a future, legally binding deal provided key conditions are met.
But several critical details of its position remain unclear.
UK Climate Secretary Chris Huhne said there was "all to play for", and other delegates also appeared optimistic that remaining divisions could be overcome.
However, difficult negotiations lie ahead on both technical issues and points of principle.
There is also concern among nations vulnerable to climate change that the pace of decarbonisation will not be fast enough to protect them against impacts such as droughts and rising sea levels.
"We are beginning to see cards coming down on the table, on the first arrival of ministers," said South Africa's International Relations Minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the meeting's president.
"Now countries can begin dealing with difficult political decisions."
The Chinese position is critical to achieving an outcome here that everyone can live with.
The EU and many of the smaller and poorer developing nations want talks to begin soon on a new global deal that should be legally binding and include all countries.
In return, it is prepared to put its next round of emission cuts - 20% from 1990 levels by 2020 - under the umbrella of the Kyoto Protocol, as developing countries demand.The chance that USA will continue to be the skunk at the climate change party seems virtually certain.
Some other rich nations such as Norway, Switzerland and Australia would be likely to follow the EU's lead, though others - notably Japan, Russia and Canada - will not. more
James Hansen says Obama missed the boat on climate
DW visits James Hansen to discuss the US response to climate change. The head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies is possibly best known for his 1988 testimony to Congress on the dangers of global warming.
In the United States, climate change is a touchy subject.
Some Americans still doubt that humans are altering the climate. Not James Hansen. He stands among those who have been concerned the longest with humans' rising output of carbon dioxide and its implications for the planet.
His spacious New York office is filled with heavy 70s wooden furniture.
Piles of books and scientific studies cover every available surface. Photos of his grandchildren hang on the wall. "The newest one is Lauren Emma," he says, indicating one picture. "She's two-and-a-half days old there," he adds.
Hansen is director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and a professor at Columbia University.
He says he doesn't want to scare his grandchildren about the future, but does use them "shamelessly" to pull at the heartstrings of adults "because what we are doing is affecting the lives primarily of these young people."
With so many immediate concerns, climate change doesn't figure highly for many people in the US.
On Capitol Hill, most energy has been spent addressing the poor state of the economy and health care reform. Action on climate has drifted into the background in Washington.
That disappoints Hansen. He says President Barack Obama missed a rare opportunity.
"When he came into office his popularity was so high," Hansen said. "The public would [have been] willing to move the country."
Now, with the economy in turmoil, his sheen tarnished and his team's attention focused on reelection, Obama has no room to maneuver - even though attacking the climate problem would also help address energy security and the country's dependence on foreign oil.
Though the US lobbied hard at climate negotiations in the 1990s for a market-based approach to solving the problem, today federal 'cap-and-trade' legislation looks like a distant prospect at best.
Yet Hansen opposes the kind of European-style emissions trading scheme that many environmentalists would like to see the US embrace.
"There is no way to prevent big banks from being involved in a cap-and-trade system," Hansen says.
"Where does the money come from that the banks are making? It comes from the public of course, in energy prices."
Hansen fears that emissions trading schemes are too open to money-making while doing too little to curb emissions. moreThe German Environment Minister seems to think the financial crises should not get in the way of doing something dramatic about climate change. Good luck to him.
German Environment Minister says financial crisis sounds a climate warning
As the high-level segment of climate talks in Durban approaches, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen tells Deutsche Welle about the message he plans to take to his American and Chinese counterparts. Röttgen says the climate and financial crises stem from the same short-term thinking
On the eve of his trip to Durban, South Africa, to engage in the high level segment of climate negotiations, Germany's Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen spoke to Deutsche Welle about what he hopes to achieve and what he intends to demand.
Deutsche Welle: Carbon emissions reached a higher level this year than ever before. Is the trip to Durban really worth it for you?
Norbert Röttgen: It's certainly indefensible not to go. We don't know what success or failure awaits, but it would be putting the cart before the horse not to attend: Precisely because the trends between CO2 emissions and what needs to be done to mitigate them are so divergent. It's absolutely vital that we work toward a global solution to this global challenge. There is no alternative, as tedious as negotiations currently are.
Many observers who have been following climate negotiations for years say all that will come out of Durban is hot air – again. Do you have a clear goal for your trip to South Africa?
The international community may not have found an adequate answer to climate change yet, but it is wrong to say talks have only produced hot air. In Cancun [in 2010] we agreed to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
There are a range of national measures that have been initiated, not just in Germany and Europe for example, but also in China, African countries and other continents. Things are moving. We have agreed to a climate fund – there's "fast start" finance up until 2012, there are programs to protect forests and there are technologies. We are working on methods to improve verification and transparency. Everything is happening.
Yet it appears there is a race against time that politics can't win.
That's not yet clear. Sometime, in a decade at the latest, we will have crossed a threshold for acting preventatively. There's a kind of peak point after which it is no longer possible to control global warming. It is still possible, but it is a race against time. Emissions are rising, yet countries' capacity to act is stagnating. more