November 28, 2011 4:30 pm

Rifts cloud start of UN climate talks

The UN’s major annual climate conference began in the steamy South African city of Durban on Monday amid signs of deep discord over how countries should curb their carbon emissions.

This year’s gathering comes 12 months before the expiry of the main provisions of the 1997 Kyoto protocol, the world’s only comprehensive treaty that legally obliges countries to cut their emissions.

Developing countries, which have always been exempt from the pact, insist the wealthy countries who signed up for the first phase of Kyoto must make a new round of pledges to cut their emissions at the conference, which runs to December 9.

“If Durban puts off a legally binding agreement,” said Dessima Williams, who chairs the group of small island states that has pushed loudly for a new global pact, “many of our small island states will be literally and figuratively doomed.”

But so far, only the European Union and a small group of other industrialised countries have said they are willing to consider a second phase of Kyoto.

And even they say they will not do so unless all countries agree to consider some form of legally binding reductions at some point in the future, including China, which overtook the US to become the world’s biggest emitter in 2007.

“The world economy of 2011 is simply not like it was in 1997 when the Kyoto protocol was done,” said Connie Hedegaard, EU climate commissioner.

EU countries account for just 11 per cent of global emissions, she said, while China contributes 24 per cent and has higher per capita emissions than some European nations.

“I think it’s clear to everyone you cannot have a strong enough international agreement if [it includes] only the EU with our 11 per cent of global emissions, supported by a few other countries,” she said.

“What about the remaining 80-something per cent? When will they follow? That is going to be the key question for Durban.”

But inside Durban’s sprawling convention centre, there was little evidence of a shift within the two countries whose differences have long dogged the negotiations – China, and the US, which signed but never ratified the Kyoto pact.

“I’m not sure that the issue of legal form will be resolved here, or needs to be resolved here,” said the US deputy envoy for climate change, Jonathan Pershing.

He pointed to the last UN summit in Cancún, Mexico, where countries accounting for some 80 per cent of global emissions formally agreed to make voluntary pledges to curb their carbon pollution up to 2020, without a legally binding treaty.

“To my way of thinking, that’s an enormous way forward in solving the problem,” he said.

Chinese negotiator Su Wei, meanwhile, told state radio that while the EU had put forward a proposal to extend Kyoto, “the prospects are not very optimistic” at Durban.

The possibility of the summit collapsing into acrimonious disagreement is weighing on its South African hosts.

“With sound leadership, nothing is impossible here in Durban,” said Jacob Zuma, South African president, without offering clarity on what that might be.

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