What outcome for Durban climate talks?
Veteran watchers of the UN climate process differ in their predictions for talks opening in Durban on Monday, but all foresee an outcome falling short of a major breakthrough.
A cascade of alarming news from scientists underscores the urgent need to slash CO2 emissions if humanity is to have a fighting chance of capping the rise in global temperature at two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a goal enshrined at last year's climate forum in Cancun, Mexico.
But negotiators in Durban -- still rattled by the near-collapse of the over-reaching 2009 Copenhagen Summit -- have set their sites lower, analysts say.
The talks, under the 194-nation UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), run through December 9.
"There are three scenarios that people are talking about for Durban," said Alden Myer of the Washington-based Union for Concerned Scientists, outlining results ranging from modest progress to complete deadlock.
The key to all of them lies in the fate of the UNFCCC's Kyoto Protocol, the world's only legally-binding agreement to curb greenhouse gases, Meyer and other experts say.
While the treaty itself is not threatened, its first five-year roster of commitments -- under which rich nations must cut carbon emissions by about five percent, compared to a 1990 benchmark -- closes at the end of 2012.
The developing world, exempt from such constraints, wants advanced economies to renew their Kyoto vows.
But many -- including Japan, Canada and Russia -- have bluntly refused to do so as long as the world's top polluters remain unconstrained by international law.
After playing a major role in drafting Kyoto, the United States opted out in 2001.
Number One emitter China has set its own goals for improved energy efficiency, but refuses to take on carbon-cutting targets under a global regime, as do emerging giants India and Brazil.
Rich countries under the Protocol, adopted in 1997, accounted for 64 percent of carbon emissions in 1990. Today they emit less than a third.
Only the European Union (EU) -- responsible for barely 11 percent of global CO2 output -- is ready to commit again, and only under one condition.
It wants all major emitters to back the completion of a legally-binding global climate pact, perhaps by 2015, into which the treaty could be subsumed.
"That is what a roadmap should do: describe some principles, the process and the timetable for what should come next," said EU climate chief Connie Hedegaard. "Without a roadmap, no second commitment period."
Here, then, are three possible scenarios:
1. BEST CASE
A rump group of rich Kyoto nations led by the EU takes on new carbon-cutting obligations, provided the United States and China endorse a "roadmap".
"A political second commitment period would establish a parallel process under Kyoto, thereby keeping it alive so that it can -- potentially -- fight another day," said Daniel Bodansky, a law professor at Arizona State University.
The talks would also make headway on a "Green Climate Fund", sketched in Cancun, slated to provide at least 100 billion dollars annually by 2020 to help poorer nations prevent and cope with climate change.
2. MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
Durban fails to muster a soft rollover of Kyoto pledges because Washington refuses to sign on to a future comprehensive climate deal -- a hard sell in Washington for the Obama administration during an election year.
But progress is made towards rendering the climate fund operational, and fleshing out schemes for forests, technology transfer, adaptation along with new rules on monitoring and verifying emissions reduction claims.
This package would at least show that the UNFCCC process is able to deliver incremental practical solutions.
3. WORST CASE
"The worst case is that the anger over the perceived death of Kyoto, and the failure of leadership by developing countries, lead to a blockage of even the Cancun decisions," said Meyer.
"That puts you back into a kind of crisis mode where people are questioning what the UN process is really bringing to the table."
For some countries at the talks, even the "best case" scenario outlined here may seem like too little too late, but the chances of a more robust outcome seem dim to nil, experts say.
© 2011 AFP