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Climate Negotiators Stake Out Initial Positions in Run-Up to COP17 UN Treaty Talks in Durban, South Africa

The US team participating in UN climate change talks in Durban, South Africa is resisting calls from its European counterpart and others to begin discussing a legally binding climate change-greenhouse gas emissions reduction treaty that would come into effect in 2020 and succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which has been in effect since February 16, 2005.

The US negotiating team, which is led by US Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, said that participants need a “better sense what the content would be” before deciding what the legal form of an agreement might be. The US team also wants assurances in advance that China, India and other major developing countries would be bound by the same commitments as industrialized countries, according to a ClimateWire report.

Negotiating a legally binding treaty to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is only one topic on the agenda at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) 17th Conference of Parties (COP 17), which will take place between November 28 and December 9, but it’s the central issue and no doubt the highest profile one.

High Stakes and a High Bar

Making legally binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases – including carbon dioxide, methane, hydro-fluorocarbons (HFC), nitrous and sulfur oxides – is seen as the critical first step and linchpin for global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Reaching an agreement on reducing man-made greenhouse gas emissions would set the broad, overarching objective and commitment for negotiations regarding financial mechanisms, international trade, technology and accelerated access to critical mitigation and adaptation technologies and intellectual property rights that are on the provisional agenda in Durban.

Analysts say the US team “is setting a high bar for even starting to talk about such a deal,” according to ClimateWire’s report. That’s dampening already low expectations that the terms of a legally binding agreement will be reached in Durban, especially given the differences and difficulties experienced at COP meetings in Copenhagen in 2009 and Cancun last year.

The Kyoto Protocol’s survival “hangs by a thread,” the ClimateWire report notes. Japan, Russia and Canada have come out and publicly stated that they will not submit new carbon reduction targets when the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends next year unless the US and major emerging economies sign on.

The EU is proposing a compromise that entails its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol’s second phase as long “as countries build a clear road map for a legally binding treaty that covers all major emitters.” Some see that being a “legal mandate signed in Durban to negotiate a deal by 2015 that could take effect by or before 2020.” Others say that a less formal agreement on a “road map” would suffice.

COP 17 will open with reports on greenhouse gas emissions in the 37 industrialized countries and the European Union that agreed to binding target emission reductions an average 5% against 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012 as laid out in the Kyoto Protocol. Participants will review these results, as well as those to do with carrying out commitments on financial mechanisms, those of the Global Environment Facility, development and transfer of technologies, capacity building and other provisions of the Kyoto Protocol.

Results so far regarding greenhouse gas emissions are discouraging. The warming effect of greenhouse gases on climate, known as radiative forcing, increased 29% from 1990 to 2010, according to the UN World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) latest report. Last week, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report written by more than 100 of the world’s top scientists stated that we can expect more frequent floods, droughts, heat waves, snow storms and extreme weather.

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