Durban Climate Talks Begin This Week

How important are they? Should we brace ourselves for the outcome?

The latest in a series of UN-sponsored climate talks that produced the Kyoto  treaty in 1997  gets underway this week in Durban, South Africa. Skimming the headlines might lead you to believe nothing much will happen (“Heat But No Light Likely” is typical). For a more optimistic view, see Mark Lynas’s video talk and post for Dot Earth on Nov. 16. Lynas writes that more than 30 nations have met in a working group known as the Cartagena Dialogue, with the goal of “[increasing] the pace at which the negotiations move, and the ambition of the resulting carbon emissions mitigation.” He also points to the good news that “decarbonising can proceed, and is proceeding, without waiting for a legally binding treaty.”

In a debate in the Guardian, “Is a global agreement the only way to tackle climate change?” David King minimizes the importance of the Durban conference, pointing out that countries like the U.K. and China are voluntarily creating and meeting goals for reducing their carbon output, and asserting that this “bottoms-up” strategy will eventually lead to binding treaties. Achim Steiner counters that this is a potentially dangerous strategy, particularly for smaller states more at risk of warming effects but without influence over the big carbon producers. Steiner concludes, “The world is becoming ever more complex, geopolitically, economically and environmentally. Pinning the future on solely voluntary arrangements is an enormous act of faith.” Thus, he urges the delegates to “strengthen and streamline, rather than abandon international environmental treaties.”

Who is right? Let’s hope both views are correct, that the Durban talks will be more successful than low expectations lead us to hope for and that leading carbon-producing nations will move ahead with their goal of drastically reducing their contribution to global warming.

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