Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Climate Talks Go Longer Than Expected


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Diplomats in the United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa are still struggling to bring that meeting to some sort of close. Still no deal from the talks, which was supposed to coordinate international efforts on global warming. Diplomats are hoping that all the talk won't prove to be just a lot of carbon emissions. We're joined now from the talks by NPR's Richard Harris. Richard, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Durban's a beautiful place to be, and saying goodbye is a hard thing for all of us, but what's holding up the talks?

HARRIS: Great question. Well, I'm in the basement of the conference center, so it's not quite as beautiful down here. But in the biggest sense, this has never been an easy topic because climate change really touches on some of the biggest and most difficult issues out there. Developing nations put their economic growth first, which is understandable; rich nations are worried about economic competitiveness. And, of course, the oil-rich nations, which worry about their future economies; and let's not forget about the island nations who worry about disappearing under the waves as sea level rises. So, that's the big picture. More specifically, here in Durban the biggest disagreement is really what to do during the coming decade in order to ramp up efforts on climate change.

SIMON: Wasn't there a deal just two years ago in Copenhagen?

HARRIS: There was, and it was a voluntary agreement, it had some very strong language and the really good news about that is it brought all the world's biggest emitters together - United States and China - and they've all pledged to take steps to slow their carbon emissions. So, that's good. The bad news is that those pledges don't add up enough to prevent the planet from heating up quite rapidly. So, there's been a lot of pressure at this meeting to find a way to step up the ambition and speed things up and really a lot of disagreement about what that different deal should look like.

SIMON: What are the prospects, as you see it, for some kind of compromise?

HARRIS: It's hard to say right now. I just came from upstairs where ministers are huddled in a meeting trying to work something out. What they are really working on is language that's loose enough and ambiguous enough to satisfy everyone, particularly countries like the United States, China and India who are still thinking about those big pledges they made in Copenhagen and saying, you know, can we actually do more than that. And on the other hand, the weaker the language gets - if you make, you know, the lowest common denominator-kind of language - then draws objections from more ambitious branches of folks here, including the European Union and, of course, many of the world's poorest countries.

SIMON: And of course you've been hearing that this is all tied up the future of the Kyoto Climate Treaty. How does that play into events?

HARRIS: Well, let me remind you, the Kyoto Treaty now only pertains to Europe and a handful of other countries. And their initial promises to reduce emissions actually sunset at the end of next year. So, the treaty really has no long-term future. It does not include the world's biggest emitters - us and China and India and so on. But the developing world still loves it because it explicitly says that they don't have to take any action to combat climate change unless the rich nations pay them to do so. So, Europe is still willing to extend its commitment under the Kyoto Treaty but they're trying to use that as leverage essentially to bring about a new deal here that includes everybody. I'm not sure if the ambiguous legal language you've been hearing about is enough to satisfy Europe's position about that, and they have very ambitious goals of their own for trying to reduce climate change. They want to get everyone else on board on there. So, really what we're seeing here in part is the fate of the Kyoto Treaty is hanging in the balance.

SIMON: And, Richard, what happens if there's no agreement?

HARRIS: Well, in the short run, that would be an embarrassment for the host country. The Kyoto Protocol in particular is loved on this continent and South Africans don't want to have it die on African soil. And other people don't want to put them in that position either. So, that's there. It's possible the conference will adopt some important but more technical decisions. And it's also possible that a lot of this will just get kicked down the road for six months or a year until the next meeting.

SIMON: Well, and we hope you'll be there. NPR's Richard Harris at the U.N. climate talks in Durban. Thanks so much.

HARRIS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.