, DURBAN, Nov 28 – UN talks on climate change got underway in South Africa on Monday amidst signs of a deepening political rift on how to slow the carbon juggernaut.
Topping the agenda is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the only global pact with targets for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, whose first round of pledges expires at the end of 2012.
The conference must also push ahead with a “Green Climate Fund” to channel up to 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to countries exposed to drought, flood, storms and rising seas, which scientists forecast will worsen this century.
But the mood at the talks has been soured by divisions over how to share out the burden of emissions curbs, while the dark clouds of a global economic crisis are casting a shadow over the climate fund.
“We are in Durban with one purpose: to find a common solution that will secure a future to generations to come,” said Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s minister of international relations, who is chairing the 12-day, 194-nation parlay.
“With sound leadership, nothing is impossible here in Durban,” declared South African President Jacob Zuma.
But UN climate chief Christiana Figueres warned the talks urgently needed to shore up public confidence.
“This conference needs to reassure the vulnerable, all those who have already suffered and all those who will still suffer from climate change, that tangible action is being taken for a safer future,” she said.
Figueres pointed to record increases and levels in greenhouse-gas concentrations, and the rising number of livelihood wrecked by climate change.
“The need for action has never been more compelling or achievable,” she said. “Finding a workable way forward in this complexity is the defining issue of this conference.”
Divisions within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are in flux, analysts and negotiators say, pitching rich against poor, rich against rich and poor against poor.
“This is one of the most unpredictable of COPs,” said Tasneem Essop of WWF International, using the shorthand jargon – Conference of the Parties – for high-level climate meets. “Everything is fluid, everything is still in play.”
Wealthy countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol are baulking at demands to renew their emissions-cutting vows beyond 2012.
Such a move, they argue, would be folly so long as China, which as a developing country has no specified targets under Kyoto, and the United States, which abandoned the treaty in 2001, are not bound by similar constraints.
“It is headed towards a real impasse in Durban, frankly, there is no way to gloss over it,” a veteran observer participating in the talks said on Sunday.
“There are very few options left open to wring much out of the meeting unless the position of these major countries softens considerably.”
In a press release, the 132-nation bloc of developing countries hit at “some” rich countries “which insisted in inflexible positions that would make real progress at this session quite difficult.”
Yet there are also cracks within this bloc.
Countries that are the poorest and most vulnerable fear that the so-called BASIC countries – Brazil, China, India and South Africa – which are now big or even massive emitters – want to push back a global pact to as late as 2020.
If Kyoto is not renewed, the only matrix for tackling greenhouse-gas emissions will be the voluntary pledges launched in 2009 in a face-saving deal at the stormy Copenhagen climate summit.
But the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says these pledges currently fall far short of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels, a goal enshrined last year.
To have a “likely” chance of meeting this target, annual emissions would have to fall by around 8.5 percent by 2020 compared to 2010 levels and keep declining by some 2.6 percent each year thereafter.
Small island nations facing rising seas are demanding that warming be limited to 1.5 C (2.7 F), and see any delay as a sellout – or worse.
“The push by the world’s biggest carbon polluters to delay flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence in support of immediate action and represents a betrayal of the people most vulnerable to climate change and the world,” said Grenada’s Dessima Williams, chairwoman of the Association of Small Island States (AOSIS).