Climate Talks Resort To Scaling Back Hopes

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International negotiations on how to deal with climate change resume Monday in of Cancun, Mexico, though expectations for this meeting have been reduced dramatically. Host Liane Hansen talks about the state of international climate diplomacy with NPR's Christopher Joyce.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

This week, thousands of people will gather in Cancun, Mexico to try - again -to forge a new agreement to slow global warming. It's the 16th meeting of the parties to the United Nations treaty on climate change. Last year's meeting in Denmark ended without much progress. But there was a last-minute agreement that may form the nucleus of a new approach for climate action.

NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce is here to talk about that. And first, Chris, bring us up to date on where the world is now on limiting climate change. I mean, after all, there is a treaty - the Kyoto Protocol - that most of the industrial world follows.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: That's right. It's halfway through its commitment period from 2008 to 2012, but it's also absent some very important countries: the United States, China, India - the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world. So far, the people who have signed onto it are doing fairly well and meeting their commitments but these commitments are just the beginning. They're not really enough to make a big impact in slowing down climate change.

Kyoto expires in 2012, and nobody really knows what's going to happen after that.

HANSEN: But there was an agreement at the end of the Copenhagen meeting. President Obama and several other major economic powers, at the 11th hour, they sat down and cut a deal.

JOYCE: That was an 11th hour situation - literally a backroom deal, where President Obama came in at the last couple of days and said, look, I'm going to sit down outside of the U.N. conference room with the heads of state and leaders of India and China and South Africa and a few of the other big economies and we're just going to do an end run around the U.N. and come to some sort of deal that we can walk away with. And this is now called the Copenhagen Accord.

It's not binding the way that the Kyoto Protocol is on its signatories. It's a pledge and review. You raise your right hand, I promise I'm going to do reduce my emissions and greenhouse gases but you can't hold me to it.

HANSEN: So, what happens at Cancun? Do they expect to pick up where Copenhagen left off?

JOYCE: They would like to. Now, everybody's keeping hopes very, very low. No promises, because Copenhagen was such a disaster, they can't afford another one because they'll lose all credibility in the U.N. process. So, it kind of breaks into two processes. One is that the Copenhagen countries, the big economies like the U.S. and India and China, that are not part of the Kyoto Protocol, they'll go on their own direction. They'll cut deals with each other on how much they'll need to cut their emissions in order to meet their targets and try to slow global warning.

The U.N. will continue, even without a new treaty to replace Kyoto, trying to find whatever it can do, particularly with the developing world. They're very concerned about developing countries, how they're going to be hit by climate change, will they have the technology to deal with it. So, there's a lot of talk about funding mechanisms to take money from the rich countries and give it to the poor countries so that they can deal with this. So, that seems to be more along the lines of what the United Nations is trying to do.

HANSEN: In the end, though, will any of it be enough to keep the planet from overheating?

JOYCE: I would love to say yes to that. I would really like to say yes to that, but I can't. The latest numbers - let's just take a look at the Copenhagen agreement again. These are the big countries that emit lots of CO2, lots of greenhouse gases. The pledges that they've come up with so far is not going to get us there. It'll get us sort of close but they're not nearly stringent enough to keep the temperature of the earth going up, according to the scientific analysis at the moment.

The Kyoto Protocol itself is just scratching the surface. I mean, the European countries have reduced their emissions somewhat, in part because of their economies since 1990. Many of them went down the tubes. So, they were not emitting very much. Their industry was down. So, I'd have to say this is just a single page in this very long book that's going to be climate change for the rest of this century.

HANSEN: NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce. Thanks a lot, Christopher.

JOYCE: My pleasure to be here.

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