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Salvaging Kyoto a ‘tall order’: UN climate chief

Breathing new life into the Kyoto Protocol is a “tall order” and the toughest challenge facing global talks on climate change, the UN climate chief said Sunday on the eve of the conference.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), pointed to the enormity of the task amid escalating demands from developing countries and green campaigners to save the only legally-binding treaty to cut greenhouse gases.

Kyoto’s first round of emissions pledges by rich countries expires next year, but only the European Union (EU) — which accounts for barely 11 percent of global CO2 emissions — has said it might renew its vows.

Defectors such as Japan and Russia, along with the United States, which never ratified Kyoto, are eyeing a parallel forum in the 194-nation UNFCCC that focuses on voluntary emissions curbs.

Determining Kyoto’s survival while at the same time pursuing this second track “is a tall order for governments,” UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres said at a press conference.

“This conversation [between the two tracks], from a political level, is the most difficult issue facing this conference.”

A breakthrough — if there is one — will come in the last days of the November 28-December 9 talks when ministers arrive in Durban to try to push through a final compromise, she said.

Developing countries are lobbying hard for Kyoto to be kept alive, and some campaigners have warned of angry protests.

The good news coming into negotiations is a “growing momentum for action,” Figueres added, pointing to recent actions in nearly 20 countries to reduce carbon pollution.

The bad news is a wave of new data showing that carbon dioxide levels have hit record highs and are causing more intense and frequent extreme weather.

As a result, the window for lower-cost mitigation is fast closing.

“These reports are sounding alarm bells for urgent action,” she said.

Figueres dismissed predictions that the Durban climate conference would yield scant results.

She also said those coming with “low expectations” should not forget the complexity of what is being attempted.

“This is nothing short of the most compelling energy, industrial, behavioural revolution humanity has ever seen,” she said.

The UNFCCC process remains deeply shaken by the near-collapse of the Copenhagen summit in 2009.

At Durban, a bottom-line outcome would be some sort of lifeline for Kyoto, and progress on parallel issues ranging from technology transfer and the build-up of a 100-billion-dollar a year Green Climate Fund for poorer countries, Figueres said.