Climate-Treaty Talks Target U.S., China Emissions

Top delegates at the U.N. climate conference in Durban, South Africa, decide this week whether the Kyoto Protocol lives or dies. Tuesday morning, U.S. delegates have a one-on-one with China. The U.S. says it's open to discussing a future treaty but won't talk about anything legally binding until it knows what exactly would be in that agreement. China says it's open for talks but is vague beyond that.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer, sitting in for Renee Montagne. A dozen world presidents and prime ministers are taking part in the United Nations climate-treaty talks in Durban, South Africa. They're mostly from African nations and other parts of the world most vulnerable to climate change.

INSKEEP: And they start taking the floor today to argue for more ambitious limits on greenhouse gases, specifically limits from the United States and from China. But the United States has said it will only agree to more limits if China does.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Richard Harris joins us from Durban with an update from the meeting. So Richard, what are the big fault lines that you see in this gathering?

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Well, Linda, at the moment I would say a lot comes down to essentially charting a path forward for the rest of the decade. The existing Kyoto Protocol, the treaty that guides climate right now, is fading away. Key parts are actually expiring, and in any event, many nations are giving up on it. So the replacement that's been emerging though is not making people entirely happy. It consists largely of voluntary pledges, and that's a concept that emerged in Copenhagen two years ago. But it turns out that those pledges are not nearly ambitious enough at the moment to prevent continued heating of the planet.

Even so, major players, including the United States and China, don't really want to revisit those pledges until the end of the decade, and other people say, come on, you really got to do better than you're doing right now. And there's no obvious way that I see right now to resolve that major conflict at the moment.

WERTHEIMER: So then what could the talks accomplish?

HARRIS: Well, the best case right now seems to be that nations could agree on some general principles that would guide this process forward in the coming years. Europe has actually put forth a document called a roadmap that would gradually move the world toward a new climate treaty at the end of the decade, but that long delay actually may be so frustrating to the developing world that they might say they'd rather walk away from the talks than accept something they consider such a weak compromise. So it's possible that this will end up as a major blow to these United Nations climate talks, which actually have been going on since President George H.W. Bush signed the framework convention on climate change back in 1992.

WERTHEIMER: Is there any indication that that is where things are headed, toward failure?

HARRIS: Well, I think the consensus right now is it's too soon to tell. One thing that we are seeing is that countries are jockeying to try to avoid blame if the talks do collapse. China came out yesterday and said it's open to a new treaty in 2020, but they're so vague on the details that it's really hard to know whether it's a genuine offer or just sort of a way to say don't blame us if things fall apart.

The United States representatives have tried to set the bar for these talks very low, saying that in their view the meeting will be a success if the delegates can simply nail down some of the outstanding technical issues, such as working out a fund to help developing countries. They agreed to set up this green climate fund last year at the meeting in Cancun, but there's still a lot of technology details that need to be worked out to figure out exactly who controls the fund and where the money would come from.

WERTHEIMER: Well, Richard, as you look around you, do you have any sense of how these things are going to be settled?

HARRIS: Well, I think the talks will come right down to the wire. We'll probably not have a clear picture of this until late Friday night or maybe even Saturday morning, so stay tuned.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Richard.

HARRIS: My pleasure, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Richard Harris in Durban, South Africa.

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