The EU’s negotiator at the summit said both developing and developed countries had to make firm commitments to emissions caps this year or risk the public “losing confidence in this travelling circus”.
The United Nations climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, opened in disarray yesterday after violent storms, the late arrival of the host president and a major rift emerging between some of the world’s biggest [emitters].
As delegates arrived in the coastal city on Sunday, dark skies gave way to thunder and lightning storms and torrential rain which waterlogged parts of the city’s conference venue and swept away tin shacks in townships on the outskirts of the city, killing eight people.
By yesterday, many of the estimated 15,000 delegates packed into the main hall for the opening session, only to be kept waiting for 40 minutes by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma.
Aides to the president blamed the president of Chad, saying Mr Zuma arrived on time but was forced to wait for him.
The 17th Conference of the Parties summit represents the last chance for developed nations to sign up to a second term of the Kyoto Protocol, which specifies legal limits for their carbon dioxide emissions, before it expires at the end of next year.
Speaking at the opening session of the talks, Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate change official urged all parties to be flexible, and quoted South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela in telling them: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations, who is chairing the 12-day, 194-nation meeting, said the world’s poorest countries – many of them in Africa – were dependent on swift action to stave off the catastrophic effects of global warming which affect them most.
“We are in Durban with one purpose: to find a common solution that will secure a future to generations to come,” she said.
But within hours of the summit’s start, most of the major players made clear their unwillingness to negotiate their positions.
The European Union led a positive charge to revive Kyoto, saying it would sign up for a second term. But it stipulated that the world’s two biggest polluters, the United States – the sole developed country to shun Kyoto – and China – still classed as a developing country – should also agree to legally-binding emissions cuts before 2015.
Artur Runge-Metzger, the EU’s negotiator at the summit, said both developing and developed countries had to make firm commitments to emissions caps this year or risk the public “losing confidence in this travelling circus”.
The US said that China signing up to a such a deal was a “basic requirement” for its own participation but even then, it offered no guarantees.
Meanwhile China and the G77 group of developing nations said that they would insist on developed nations signing a second Kyoto term before agreeing to any global deals themselves.
Canada has already said it will not commit to a second term but yesterday it emerged that it could withdraw before the original deal expires. The country’s national broadcaster said it would be announced next month that Canada will withdraw from the protocol – a move its Green Party warned would make it a “global pariah” at Durban.
Within the European Union grouping, which speaks at the summit with one voice, cracks were already beginning to emerge after the publication of a report suggesting the UK was backing a controversial plan by Canada to extract oil from swampland – something the EU has made clear it is against because of the levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
Those watching the talks begin said it was an inauspicious start. “It is headed towards a real impasse in Durban, frankly, there is no way to gloss over it,” one veteran participant said.
“There are very few options left open to wring much out of the meeting unless the position of these major countries softens considerably.”