UN climate talks entered their second week yesterday entangled in a thick mesh of issues with no guarantee that negotiators and their ministers will be able to sort them out.
The 194-nation process is facing, for the second time in two years, the prospect of a bust-up, even as scientists warn against the mounting threat of -disaster-provoking storms, droughts, flood and rising seas made worse by global warming.
The 12-day Durban conference is eying a deal that secures the future of the Kyoto Protocol, set to be cast into limbo just a year from now.
It would also seek to coax China, the US, India and Brazil into a new treaty on emissions curbs.
Wendel Trio of Greenpeace said everything now depended on four days of talks among environment ministers, scheduled to start today.
“There is progress on some of the smaller technical issues, but the big political questions will have to wait till ministers arrive,” he said.
The conference’s high-level session begins this afternoon.
At the heart of the maneuvering is the future of Kyoto, which stipulates legally binding targeted curbs in greenhouse gases for rich countries.
The EU — nearly alone — has offered to extend its Kyoto pledges after they expire at the end of next year. However, it will do so, it says, only if major emitters — including the US and emerging giants such as China — back plans for a new binding pact that would be completed by 2015 and take effect by 2020, when the current roster of voluntary pledges runs out.
This would achieve what the nearly disastrous Copenhagen Summit of 2009 failed to do: forge a worldwide treaty binding all the big parties to emissions constraints.
After a week of mixed signals, China declared on Sunday that it could envisage post-2020 binding commitments — provided a range of conditions, including the survival of Kyoto, were met.
“I don’t know if this is a shift in China’s position, but it is clearly a signal that China intends to be flexible and constructively negotiate over the next week,” said Alden Meyer, a veteran observer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington NGO.
If so, that would set the scene for a game of climate poker between the top two carbon polluters.
For now, the US has resisted the EU roadmap, saying it cannot sign up to a legal framework the contents of which have not been spelled out.
Domestic politics weigh heavily in this thinking. There are presidential elections less than a year away, with the risk of a backlash from a bailout-weary public worried about the cost to their wallets of a climate treaty.
However, Meyer said that this obstacle could be overcome if — in the next few days — the US prodded the Chinese into being clearer and more ambitious in what they were offering.
“If the US delegation could come home with an agreement where they could legitimately say that China was willing to negotiate post-2020 legally binding commitments for China, that would be a huge accomplishment for the US,” he said.