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New Climate Change Deal to Succeed Kyoto a Long Shot

November 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
What's behind the long struggle to reach a new international agreement on reducing greenhouse gases? Margaret Warner and The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin preview the U.N.'s annual climate conference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, what’s behind the long struggle to reach a new international agreement on reducing greenhouse gases?

Margaret Warner has our update.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s been nearly 15 years since leaders from 37 industrialized countries agreed to reduce their carbon emissions as part of the so-called Kyoto Protocol. But countries would no longer be bound to meet the requirements of the deal after December 2012, even as greenhouse gases are reaching record levels in the atmosphere.

For its part, the U.S. never participated in the Kyoto treaty, after Congress refused to ratify it. House Democrats passed a cap-and-trade bill to reduce heat-trapping emissions in 2009, but it collapsed in the Senate last year.

Today, international negotiators kicked off a new round of talks in Durban, South Africa, to see whether any new agreements are possible. But disagreements were apparent at the outset.

For more, I’m joined by Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

And, Juliet, welcome back.

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: Thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Give us a flavor of the disagreements that were immediately on view on day one of this two-week conference.

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, you can see how far apart the major countries are when you have, for example, the Canadian environment minister back in Ottawa saying that Kyoto is the past, and you had the lead European Union negotiator saying the countries are running from Kyoto and urging them to go forward along with the EU to a second commitment period.

So, clearly, there’s a big gulf between many of the countries here.

MARGARET WARNER: So the EU officially would like to actually extend Kyoto beyond next December?

JULIET EILPERIN: They are the only ratified party right now that is willing to commit to a second round of emissions cuts.

MARGARET WARNER: So if they don’t get that, what, ideally, at least in the eyes of the U.N. climate people who convened this, would Durban achieve?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, what they’re really hoping to achieve on a broad level is an agreement to essentially talk about a new agreement that would be forged by 2020, that, basically, could the world come together and could all the major emitters agree that they would be legally bound by something else as we go forward?

MARGARET WARNER: So let’s go back to the ’97 Kyoto agreement that the EU climate negotiator said was the past — or, rather, the Canadian. How successful was it? In other words, how many of the countries that set binding targets for themselves met them?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, we’re getting — we have had mixed results. And, frankly, the economic recession that we have seen in the last couple years has helped curb emissions somewhat recently.

And so by the end of 2012, there’s some countries that, for example, were not on a path to meet their commitments such as Japan which may come in under the deadline, but you had — so — and you had the…

MARGARET WARNER: You mean because of the economic slowdown.

JULIET EILPERIN: Because of the slowdown, that they actually weren’t as high.

And so — but you have countries like Canada, for example, that as of 2009 was more than 28 percent above its 1990 levels. And it had pledged to cut its emissions by 6 percent. So while the EU and some countries have met it, most countries have gone well above that.

MARGARET WARNER: And has the problem been that it is technically more difficult to do than anyone thought, or is it a question of political will in these various countries?

JULIET EILPERIN: To a large extent, it’s a question of political will. There were divisions over, for example, whether to adopt binding emissions across an entire nation.

And if you’re not willing to do that, it becomes very hard to cut it. Then, of course, when you’re talking about transforming the energy sector, that is a major task. And it does involve some economic disruption, which some countries have been unwilling to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Very big picture, the U.S., where do our emissions stand today compared to, say, ’97?

JULIET EILPERIN: So, as of the end of 2009, which is unfortunately the most up-to-date statistics we have, we were more than 5 percent above our 1990 levels.

To put it in perspective, when we helped forge the Kyoto agreement, even though we didn’t ratify it, we had pledged to cut our emissions by 7 percent below that. So, there’s no question we would miss our target as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, meanwhile, what’s the latest science on climate change? I know that the U.N. panel, the Intergovernmental Panel, came up with a fair dire one, what, just last week.

JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely. It came up with a new report saying that there’s no question that we’re going to face, for example, increased heat waves going forward, intense precipitation that would be less frequent, so you would have the kind of flooding that we have seen across the country.

So they warned that we’d have a number of extreme weather events that would intensify as we go forward. In addition, the International Energy Agency just came out with a report saying that we’re headed for a temperature rise that would be nearly 11 degrees by the end of the century, which is far, far above what these negotiators in Durban have pledged to reach.

MARGARET WARNER: The other thing that has happened recently is the controversial emails among climate scientists that came out in 2009. A new batch came out also recently in the last couple of weeks. Was there anything in those that in any way affected the debate going into this Durban meeting?

JULIET EILPERIN: It hasn’t significantly affected the debate. It’s certainly added fodder to those who were skeptical — skeptical about the connection between human activity and climate change. But in terms of the emails, there weren’t revelations.

It was presumably from the same batch that were stolen back in 2009 and released then. And so while, for example, it caused a minor debate here in the United States, it didn’t significantly affect what we’re seeing now in Durban.

MARGARET WARNER: So what happens if, a year from now, in November 2012, we’re sitting here and there has been nothing agreed that would replace or extend Kyoto the following month? What happens?

JULIET EILPERIN: Well, there’s still — there was a more informal agreement that was reached last year when delegates met in Cancun at these same U.N. climate talks. And, there, individual countries, including all of the major emitters, did create new climate goals for themselves. And so while those aren’t…


JULIET EILPERIN: Exactly. So they’re not bound up in a legally binding treaty.

But — so, for example, the United States has pledged to reduce its emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels. It gave itself a new baseline to play with more. And other countries did the same. Even China adopted — adopted ones.

Now they’re working out, for example, how they’re going to measure and verify those reductions, but — so there are some — there is something in place. But it’s not nearly as strict as what we have seen under the Kyoto Protocol.

MARGARET WARNER: And in the meantime, briefly, American public opinion is actually less alarmed than it was about climate change in the past.

JULIET EILPERIN: Yes. What we have seen is, particularly among the most conservative of Americans, they have become less concerned with climate change and are more skeptical of this connection between human activity and what’s happening, despite the science.

And, overall, we simply just haven’t seen the kind of voter intensity that we see on other issues, such as the economy that would really propel politicians to act.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thank you.