Time is running out for a new climate future

Motorists come out from their vehicle to check as the traffic stand still at a city road in Beijing, China, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011. China's climate change envoy says global financial woes have temporarily put climate issues on the back burner but not diminished the need for a multibillion-dollar fund to help developing countries cope with global warming. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Associated Press

The UN climate change negotiations have received very little attention in the media since the disappointing conclusion of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, when countries failed to agree on a new treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet the critical importance of the next major round of negotiations, beginning November 28th in Durban, South Africa, belies the scant media coverage. The Durban talks could play a critical role in determining our global climate future if two concrete outcomes are achieved.

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First, the international community must agree on a new global framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, which does not limit the emissions of rapidly industrializing economies like China and India, and which the United States never ratified, expires at the end of 2012. In Durban, countries must lay the groundwork for a new treaty, one that is legally binding, and that includes all major emitters in a framework that respects the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Despite the fact that this item has topped the agenda since the Bali talks in 2007, the United States has stuck firmly to its position that a new agreement should enshrine voluntary instead of mandatory emissions reduction commitments. This is not a serious solution. The United States should take a strong leadership position at the negotiations in Durban, and push the global community towards an ambitious agreement that is commensurate with the climate crisis.

Developed countries must also firm up their financial commitments to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries adapt to the effects of climate change. In Cancun last year, countries agreed to establish a Green Climate Fund to help developing countries access such funds. Yet over the past year, the Transitional Committee in charge of setting up the fund has been slow to take up its work. And even once the Fund is fully operational, a central issue remains: the Fund will be empty, as developed countries have not made explicit commitments to direct finances through it.

Unfortunately, the United States has blocked any discussions of how the international community can generate a sustainable source of finance for the Fund, claiming that each developed country must decide on its own how much funding to provide and how much should come from private versus public sources. The United States must take the lead on this issue by committing public funding for this purpose. At the very least, US negotiators should facilitate a continued conversation on sources of finance, rather than blocking progress.

The challenge that we face in Durban is clearer than ever: we are rapidly running out of time to take decisive action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore limit the damage that climate change will cause. While no one knows precisely what maximum level of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions can be considered "safe," most scientists agree that 2 degrees Celsius of warming, with no more than 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide concentrations, is probably it.

Yet according to a report published by the International Energy Agency last week, if current trends continue unaltered, the atmosphere will be at full capacity by 2017. The IEA report warned that the next 5 years will therefore be crucial in determining whether we can transition to a low-carbon future, or whether the world will be locked in to a high-carbon infrastructure pathway and the very last chance to fight climate change will be "lost forever."

These two outcomes- a new global climate treaty and funding for developing countries- are on the table, and they are achievable in Durban. Instead of dragging its feet and heightening its reputation as a climate laggard, the US should demonstrate global leadership in Durban.

Bio: Alex Stark is the U.S. Tracker for the Adopt a Negotiator Project, a group of young people from around the world blogging about the UN climate change negotiations. She is attending the current round of negotiations in Durban, South Africa. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.