REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- Negotiators at a climate change meeting in South Africa struck an 11th-hour deal to avoid the collapse of international negotiations over global warming, averting the worst fears of environmental advocates but doing little to immediately advance the cause of limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The agreement in effect would postpone new concerted global action on climate change for at least eight years. However, given the political realities, particularly in the United States and China, the accord probably offered the best chance to move the process forward, analysts said.
The mood at the United Nations gathering in Durban was somber as the talks ended just before dawn Sunday, participants said, largely because many questions remained unanswered and the risk of a catastrophic increase in global average temperature had not been reduced.
Under the deal, nations committed themselves to talks aimed at reaching a legally binding agreement by 2015 that would limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that contribute to global warming. The limits would not go into effect until 2020 at the earliest.
Most countries have agreed to voluntary emission-reduction goals that scientists and environmentalists consider too modest. Without significant cuts in greenhouse gases, the world would be on course for a jump in global temperature of about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which would profoundly disturb water, weather and agriculture almost everywhere, according to widely accepted climate models.
The Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, as the agreement is called, also fleshes out how the world's wealthier nations would set up a fund to help poorer countries mitigate the effects of climate change. Research has shown that poor nations, particularly in South Asia and Africa, will bear the brunt of the damage from global warming, in part because they are more dependent on agriculture than wealthier countries.
“The Durban outcome is useful in that it shows the way forward to a legal agreement,” said Steve Herz, senior attorney with the Sierra Club's International Climate program. “But it is profoundly disappointing in that it does little to spur governments to act on the underlying problem. It's as if we spent all day negotiating the terms of a contract with a plumber, while watching a burst pipe flood our kitchen.”
[Updated at 1:20 p.m., Dec. 11: The chief U.S. representative at the talks, Todd Stern, said the outcome "had the core elements we were looking for," including measures to ensure "symmetry" in emissions cuts by developed and developing countries.]
The talks occurred against a backdrop of increasingly grim climate news, including a finding that greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 jumped by the greatest amount on record.
Facing the prospect of widespread harm, some of which has already begun, developing countries and nongovernmental groups pushed for the nearly 200 participants at the two-week Durban conference to drop their incremental approach to reducing emissions. But major emitters — particularly the U.S. and China, which are the two largest — threw up roadblocks to sweeping change, as many wrestled with struggling economies and political resistance at home.
The United States, in particular, was widely viewed as obstructionist, participants at the meeting said. The U.S. sought unconditional commitments from developing countries including China to slow their rates of emissions growth, even as it remained unclear whether those countries would get financial or technological support to do so.
The U.S. also blocked an idea, accepted by nearly all other governments and the maritime industry, to start financing the fund for poorer countries with a carbon tax on shipping.
-- Neela Banerjee
Photo: Delegates to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban watch the debate Saturday as midnight draws near. Credit: Rogan Ward / Reuters