MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And I'm Guy Raz. Diplomats from around the world head to Durban, South Africa this week. For nearly two decades, the United Nations has hosted an annual convention on climate change. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the man who has long represented the U.S. at these talks and will do so again in Durban.
BLOCK: But first to a big question looming over this year's convention. What will become of the Kyoto climate treaty, negotiated back in 1997? It was supposed to be a first step toward more ambitious action on, but is now on the brink of irrelevance. As NPR's Richard Harris reports, that could have major implications for the future of U.N. climate talks.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Even under the best of circumstances, the Kyoto protocol would have made a barely measurable dent in the amount of greenhouse gases flowing into the Earth's atmosphere. First, the United States decided not to ratify the treaty, so our emissions aren't covered by the pact. Then, China leapfrogged the U.S. to become the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide.
But China is treated like a developing country under the Kyoto treaty, which means it has no obligations. Even so, Europe and a few other nations have been soldiering on. But Jennifer Morgan at the World Resources Institute says the treaty's day of reckoning now looms.
JENNIFER MORGAN: So the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period, its first set of targets, ends next year. So the big question is what happens next and do Kyoto countries, like Europe, move forward and put their new targets into a legally-binding treaty?
HARRIS: The prospects are slim. First off, Canada, Japan and Russia say they are not interested in pledging new reductions under the treaty. The United States and China prefer an alternate approach, which came out of the climate talks two years ago in Copenhagen. They have pledged to take action individually, but not under a binding treaty. However, those commitments aren't enough to prevent a 2-degree increase in global temperature. Morgan notes that's the internationally agreed upon goal.
MORGAN: We have very little space left in our atmosphere to be continuing to pollute before we cross certain thresholds where impacts will be inevitable. So, no matter what you're looking at, the current commitments are really quite inadequate.
HARRIS: The European Union has been the Kyoto Protocol's biggest champion, but it has ambivalent feelings about it now. Michael Grubb at the University of Cambridge says on the plus side, Europe likes the treaty because it has spelled out international rules, such as standards for counting carbon emissions. Europe uses those rules to limit its own emissions.
MICHAEL GRUBB: And Europe does not want to kind of jump into a void where there aren't any really agreed rules that bind on anything. It's very reluctant to kill off the only actual legal framework that we've got.
HARRIS: On the downside, Europe is disappointed that the rest of the world did not follow its example. And Grubb says the economic crisis there has diminished the continent's appetite for more aggressive action.
GRUBB: So there's a feeling that Europe is in a bit of a holding position on climate change, at the moment, I'd say.
HARRIS: The real fight over the Kyoto treaty comes from nations in the developing world. They see the pact as a critical symbol of commitment by the rich nations to clean up a problem they largely created. South Africa's foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, is presiding over the climate talks in Durban. And she says it's vital to these talks to either rekindle the Kyoto treaty or to make progress on a successor.
MAITE NKOANA-MASHABANE: If this question is not resolved, the outcome on other matters in the negotiations will become difficult. A solution must be found.
HARRIS: Her choice of words is quite diplomatic here. In fact, some nations have been threatening to pull the plug on the whole process if the Kyoto treaty is not reinvigorated. And they can do that, since the United Nations operates by consensus. Alden Meyer from the Union of Concerned Scientists says that move would affect everything that's on the table in Durban, which is much more than commitments to limit emissions.
ALDEN MEYER: If you think about it, it's actually counterproductive for developing countries to not move forward on adaptation, on reducing deforestation, on finance - climate finance - because those are all things in their own self-interest. But the level of emotion and anger could be so big that they wouldn't think in those kind of terms and they would sort of block everything.
HARRIS: Technical structures set up by the Kyoto Protocol would live on even if nations don't adopt new commitments under the treaty. But by now, the pact governs less than 20 percent of global emissions. So even if nations keep the treaty on life support in Durban, it has already lost its practical role as the foundation for a more ambitious climate agreement. Richard Harris, NPR News.