THOUSANDS of anxious environmentalists, hard-eyed negotiators and bemused journalists gathered in Durban this week for the UN’s annual climate-change circus. Saving the planet, the main item on its agenda two years ago, in Copenhagen, was not uppermost in their minds. Saving the circus was: the failure in Copenhagen to forge a binding agreement to mitigate the world’s carbon emissions could yet lead to a breakdown of the whole UN process in Durban.
To avoid that, negotiators have until December 9th to reach three goals. Least dauntingly, they must nail down the details of initiatives agreed on in Cancún last year, chiefly the Green Climate Fund. This aims to help poor countries curb their emissions and adapt to global warming. It is supposed to be stocked with some of the $100 billion that rich countries have promised poor ones by 2020.
Little actual cash will be proffered in Durban: progress will be limited to working out the details of the fund’s design, including the relative powers of donors and recipients, and to its possible role in wooing investment. Even this is contentious, as America wants a bigger role for the private sector. But such spats should prove surmountable. Alongside progress on another promised institution, to spread green technology to poor countries, the fund is Durban’s likeliest success.
Much trickier will be reconciling the demands of developing countries for an extension of the UN’s Kyoto protocol with the determination of most developed ones to bin it. The world’s only binding agreement to curb emissions has been a colossal failure. Since it was negotiated in 1997 global emissions have risen by over a quarter, mostly in developing countries. The treaty does not curb their emissions, which are now 58% of the total; China alone is responsible for 23%. The second-biggest polluter, America, (with 20%) is also free to emit, as it has not ratified the treaty.
Developed countries that did ratify Kyoto feel cheated. Japan and Russia have rejected a second round of emission-cutting under its aegis, after their current commitments expire at the end of 2012. Canada, which will hugely overshoot its Kyoto target, is reported to be considering quitting the treaty altogether. “Kyoto is the past,” said its environment minister, Peter Kent, before setting out for Durban.