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In Durban Climate Talks, the U.S. Digs In

Marianne Hedin — December 16, 2011

About fourteen years have passed since the Kyoto Protocol, sponsored by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was signed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by about 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. The treaty requires that the major industrialized nations meet this target, but imposes no mandates on developing countries, including emerging economic powers China, India, and Brazil, all major emitters of greenhouse gases. The U.S. Senate unanimously rejected the treaty during the Clinton administration – mainly because of the unbalanced obligations of developed versus developing nations.

Because the protocol is due to expire by the end of 2012, the pressure has been building on the participating countries to make good on their pledge to limit human-induced climate change. Since 1997, two subsequent major international climate change conferences have taken place – one in Copenhagen in December 2009 and one in Cancún a year later. Both ended in disappointment, lacking any substantive results or decisions that could have a meaningful impact on the world’s global emission situation, which has continued to deteriorate every year. In particular, the United States is viewed by other countries, particularly in Europe, as an obstacle to significant progress towards curbing GHG emissions. Not only did the United States reject the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, but it has also not adopted a comprehensive national program for reducing its own GHG emissions despite having passed a national climate change policy in 2009 that pledged to curb emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

It has certainly not helped the U.S. image to have several members of the current Congress openly deride the scientific evidence for human impact on climate change, while ridiculing the scientific community. From the latest international climate talks, which wrapped up in Durban, South Africa last week, it’s clear that the country is not deviating very much from its obstructionist stance. Most importantly, the United States won’t submit to a legally binding carbon emissions treaty that the EU is seeking without a firm GHG reduction commitment from China and India. Instead, the Obama Administration says it favors individual national pledges. For their part, China and India have indicated that they would only agree to climate change pact under certain strict conditions, one being that the United States adopt a much more aggressive goal of reducing its GHG emissions ahead of 2020, because historically it has been a major polluter. “Those responsibilities past and present have to be factored into any climate change debate,” India’s environmental minister asserted.

Todd D. Stern, the Special Envoy for Climate Change at the State Department, indicated that the United States supports the EU’s proposal to adopt a road map for future discussions leading to a formal climate change treaty to be completed in 2015 and to take effect in 2020 – but he quickly qualified that statement by saying that any resulting agreement may or may not be legally binding.

GHG emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate, about 5.9% in 2010 according to new data from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Lab. This is a significant rebound from the 1.4% drop in emissions in 2009 caused by the fiscal crisis and drop in the world Gross Domestic Product. According to the Global Carbon Project, scientists have concluded that this has resulted in a half-billion extra tons of carbon released in the air, the largest absolute increase in any year since the Industrial Revolution. The Durban delegates did not succeed in meeting their main objective: to extend the Kyoto Protocol. So, yet again, we have experienced another disappointing climate change meeting. Meanwhile, countries across the globe continue to suffer from the effects of climate change, such as this year’s severe droughts in Africa, floods in Pakistan and Thailand, and record heat waves this summer from Texas to Washington, DC.

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