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Delegates To Durban Agree To Climate Treaty


Let's report, next, on a surprise agreement on climate change. United Nations climate talks in South Africa were not expected to produce much, but negotiators for many nations did make a deal, one that could lead to a major new climate treaty at the end of the decade. NPR's Richard Harris is in Durban, South Africa covering the story. Hi, Richard.


INSKEEP: So what is the agreement?

HARRIS: Well, first let me give you just a little background. There are, right now, two climate agreements at the moment: the legally binding Kyoto Protocol that affects emissions from Europe and a few other countries; and a voluntary deal that was hammered out two years ago in Copenhagen, you may recall. Now many nations have been trying to find a way to bring these two ideas together and the deal in Durban actually does start that process. If it's successful, the agreement would negotiated by 2015 and take effect at the end of the decade.

INSKEEP: OK. So they're at least on the way to an agreement. They haven't worked all the details yet. How'd they even get this far, given that things did not look very likely to proceed?

HARRIS: Yeah, that's a good question because the current arrangement enshrines a 20-year-old idea, which is that the rich nations of the world cause most of the problem and they should bear the major responsibility for cleaning it up. And many nations have been very devoted to that concept, which they express in both ethical terms as well as practical ones, and they've resisted taking on new legal responsibilities. But finally, some of those cracks are starting to show.

INSKEEP: OK. So wait a minute. You're saying that under this deal, if they work out the details over the coming years, that a developing nation like China or India, a rising economy like that, would face restrictions on their emissions the same way that the United States or European nations would.

HARRIS: That's right. And that's essential to happen, actually, because most of the emissions looking forward on the planet are actually coming from India and China and places like that. China bypassed us a couple years ago as the world's leading emitter. So if you don't have a deal, you can't really bring climate change under control.

INSKEEP: Well, how did they manage to cut the deal then?

HARRIS: Well, the European Union basically threatened to turn the Kyoto Protocol into an irrelevant agreement if other countries don't agree to the binding deal. And, you know, talks did go an extra day and a half. India was the last major holdout, and in the end they realized they didn't want to be blamed for having this whole thing fall apart, and so they said yes also.

INSKEEP: So both the Chinese and the Indians have signed on. What does this mean for the debate over climate change in the United States, Richard? Because, of course, one of the major objections to signing onto climate treaties among Americans is that Americans say they do not want to have an economic disadvantage against a country like China.

HARRIS: That's right. In fact, back in 1997, the Senate voted 95 to nothing when the Kyoto Protocol was on the table. They said no way if it doesn't include China. So I think this is an important step forward in that direction, but let's remember there are many other objections creeping into this debate, and I don't think this will put it to bed entirely.

INSKEEP: Well, what is the reaction to this deal so far?

HARRIS: Well, interest groups who have been following the international talks for many years see this as a really quite potentially positive important advance if it indeed does end up with a new treaty. Other environmental groups actually, though, are pretty disappointed with the outcome at Durban because this deal won't be ready for nearly a decade. These are really hard, complicated things to put together. It takes countries a long time to step up and accomplish what they say they want to.

So the problem right now is that if we're going to keep the planet from heating up more than two degrees Celsius, which is what these countries have previously agreed to, we aren't there yet.

INSKEEP: And just to be clear, this is a deal to make a deal. They've agreed to bind themselves to work out the details over the coming years.

HARRIS: That's right. Things could still fall apart. They've got a couple years to work on it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Richard Harris is in Durban, South Africa. Richard, thanks very much.

HARRIS: Sure, Steve, good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Richard Harris
Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.