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After Durban, What Comes Next for Climate Policy?

December 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
At the 17th U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in South Africa, leaders from around the world came to a broad last-minute compromise, but details were scarce. Ray Suarez discusses what comes next after the Durban summit with the University of Maryland's Nathan Hultman and the Clean Air Task Force's Samuel Thernstorm.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, governments around the globe grapple with what to do about climate change.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Negotiations dragged on for nearly 36 hours past the deadline in Durban, South Africa.

In the end, leaders at the 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change mostly agreed to keep talking. Among the decisions they did make, the delegates extended the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, set to expire at the end of 2012, for five years, called for a new binding accord to be created and ready to be implemented by 2020, and set up a Green Climate Fund. It would use public and private money to help developing nations combat the impacts of climate change.

Here to discuss what came out of Durban and the future of global climate talks are Nathan Hultman, director of environmental policy for the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He is also a fellow at the Brookings Institution and was in Durban for the conference. And Samuel Thernstrom, senior climate policy adviser for the Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit group dedicated to reducing air pollution through private sector collaboration, among other things. He is a former member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the George W. Bush administration.

Well, Nathan Hultman, did the delegates head back to their planes in Durban to held home feeling that they had accomplished something significant?

NATHAN HULTMAN, University of Maryland School of Public Policy: I think they felt like they accomplished something significant.

They did pull out an agreement of sorts at the end. It was an agreement, as you mentioned, to keep talking and hopefully to conclude a new treaty by 2015 that would take effect by 2020, although I think we can reasonably ask the question of how important that kind of an agreement might be in terms of actually deploying technologies that might protect the climate.

RAY SUAREZ: Samuel Thernstrom, did they accomplish much?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM, Clean Air Task Force: I think the headline story out of Durban is probably not about what was important.

The agreement to extend Kyoto and continue negotiations for a successor agreement I think is probably not going to have that much effect at the end of the day on the global climate. What is somewhat more encouraging is that there’s been a move towards engaging with some of the practical realities, instead of the pie-in-the-sky pledges that somehow never seem to be kept.

There’s been some progress on actually working out the details of how to advance the development of innovative technologies that will enable the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions over the long run. So, for example, one of the important developments out of Durban that I think hasn’t gotten much attention was that the clean development mechanism, the financing mechanism established under Kyoto that funds clean energy projects in the developing world previously didn’t include — funding wasn’t extended to carbon capture and sequestration projects, that is, technologies that take the carbon dioxide out of primarily coal-fired power plants and captures it and sequesters it underground.

The CDM was reformed in Durban so that it would allow financing for CCS projects. And I think those very hands-on, practical steps forward to engaging with the problem and to helping us development the environmental technologies that we need may prove to be important in the long run.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Nathan Hultman, poorer countries both in Cancun last year and Copenhagen the year before had said, we need help. We can’t afford to implement the technologies that would be necessary to blunt the effects of climate change where we live.

NATHAN HULTMAN: And just building off this previous comment, the negotiations at Durban did make progress on some potentially smaller, more mundane issues. So, for example, there’s a green climate fund, like you mentioned, that’s supposed to leverage up to $100 billion a year for new financing for projects to address reduction of emissions in developing countries and also to help them adapt to the climate changes that we expect to see.

There’s also a new technology mechanism that was again conceived in the Cancun agreements last year, but made operational through some of the decisions that were taken at Durban. And that will potentially leverage innovation across a number of different development contexts, ideally to help researchers and technical experts in developing countries connect with each other, and stimulate that kind of innovation that we want to see happen in the near term in order to reduce emissions globally.

RAY SUAREZ: The argument continues between heavily industrialized countries and industrializing countries, the poorer developing countries, saying, look, we may be the emitters of the future, but you guys, Europe, North America, created this problem so you should bear the burden.

By keeping China and India in the talks, did they accomplish something substantial there?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: It’s hard to say whether what was accomplished was substantial. I think we will have to see.

I think what’s important for people to appreciate, though, is that, beyond Durban, the divide between the developing and developing — developed and developing nations is breaking down somewhat, so that not all of the important action on climate change is occurring in this international negotiated framework, but in fact what we see now is that a lot of American companies that have some of the most important innovative climate friendly technologies, such as carbon capture and sequestration, as I just mentioned, are taking those technologies to China to actually develop them now and commercialize them in China’s rapidly growing energy markets.

And so while the Durban negotiations are an important opportunity for nations to come together and make collective agreements about those questions, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the most important international collaboration on technology innovation around climate is actually occurring voluntarily and on a nation-to-nation and business-to-business relationship.

RAY SUAREZ: But they stopped the clock, didn’t they, Nathan, to keep China and India engaged?

NATHAN HULTMAN: Well, China and India have been engaged in different ways.

Under, for example, the Cancun agreements of last year, there’s an opportunity for any country to report its own domestic commitments in an international context and have those commitments be verified and monitored in the international sphere. And that actually helps create a norm that emissions reduction is something that countries want to aspire to.

And it also creates transparency, so that different countries can look to each other, see what the level of ambition is in their competitor countries or their peer countries, and China and India have been engaged in that way, though they haven’t been previously, for example, in Kyoto, required to make emissions cuts with an international treaty.

RAY SUAREZ: In some of the previous conferences, some of the world’s biggest political personalities were on hand, Lula da Silva of Brazil, President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jacob Zuma of South Africa, on and on and on, a who’s who in international big country politics.

This time, it was left to the diplomats. Did that make a difference, one way or the other, bad or good?

NATHAN HULTMAN: Yes, I mean, I think that to some degree having some meetings where the very high-profile leaders of the world maybe aren’t involved allows progress on some of the more mundane, some of the more nuts-and-bolts elements of climate policy that are, again, important.

Sometimes, if it’s a meeting that aspires to an international treaty, a new kind of approach, it can help to have the world leaders there, because they can make that final push to make the treaty happen. We saw that happen in Copenhagen, for example, with President Obama’s involvement.

And we have seen that happen in the past, even way back to Kyoto, when a number of world leaders were involved. But, at this one, yes, there were — it was much more a ministerial discussion, and there was progress made on a number of fronts.

RAY SUAREZ: Samuel Thernstrom, just before the broadcast, Canada announced it was pulling out of Kyoto, even as Durban celebrated finding a way to extend it and give new life to the treaty. Is this an important development for a big, big industrial country?

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: It’s not a surprising development. Canada was widely expected to do that, because Canada has not met its Kyoto targets and, if they had remained within the Kyoto legal structure, would have been obligated to pay some $6 billion to $7 billion in penalties for failure to meet those targets.

And so most people expected that, that Canada would be looking to protect its financial interests there. That’s not surprising.

RAY SUAREZ: Doesn’t this show some weakness, Nathan Hultman, in the Kyoto protocol?

NATHAN HULTMAN: The Kyoto protocol is reaching its end stage. And I think that might be a good thing. It might enable us to move on to what may be a more productive set of treaties or set of agreements that can again see these technologies implemented in a more real way.

RAY SUAREZ: Nathan Hultman, Samuel Thernstrom, thank you both.

SAMUEL THERNSTROM: My pleasure.

NATHAN HULTMAN: Thank you.