Optimism at the U.N. talks in Durban, South Africa, gave way to pessimism Saturday, as delegates bickered over how to launch a process that could forge a new global warming pact by 2015.
Shortly before 7 p.m. in Durban, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s foreign minister and the conference’s president, announced that a series of compromise documents had been drafted, but did not divulge details.
“I think we all recognize they’re not perfect, but we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or the possible,” she said, telling the assembled delegates. “I have faith in your political will to adopt this agreement as the outcome in Durban.”
The delegates continued to meet, and it was unclear whether the documents would be approved.
Earlier, a coalition of small island nations and the European Union had floated the option of holding an interim meeting at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in late June to hammer out a meaningful compromise.
The proposal would “launch a work programme to identify and explore options to increase mitigation ambition” by countries so the world could take on steeper cuts in greenhouse gases linked to climate change. The U.N. Secretariat would publish a new technical paper by April that would summarize the current climate science, and then ministers would convene in Rio to craft a deal that could be approved by the end of 2012 in Qatar.
The last time U.N. delegates have taken such an unusual step, known as a “bis,” was a decade ago, after President George W. Bush announced he had no intention of submitting the Kyoto Protocol for Senate ratification. That meeting, in July 2001, ended up salvaging the 1997 climate pact.
“It’ll be a terrible shame if they can’t seize the opportunity to close the deal and launch the roadmap to a new agreement here in Durban,” Jennifer Haverkamp, international climate director at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in an e-mail. “But if they can’t, they should keep the momentum moving in the right direction and take another run at it sooner rather than later.”
The world’s three biggest greenhouse gas emitters — China, the United States and India, respectively — have resisted calls throughout the week to commit to a new legally binding climate treaty. China and India are not bound to emissions cuts under the current climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, while the United States did not ratify it. But these nations began to show some flexibility Friday.
The latest proposals came after the nations most imperiled by sea-level rise and other climate problems made it clear they had lost patience with the world’s major carbon emitters.
At one point Friday during a negotiating session, Ian Fry — who represents the low-lying island state of Tuvalu — observed that “we hear expressions of concern” about global warming, “yet some countries say they will not do anything until 2020. We see that as irresponsible.”
Fry suggested that India, Brazil and South Africa could lose the support of these vulnerable nations in their quests to become permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. “For us, this is a security issue,” he said, “and we would need to consider this in the context of the Security Council.”
As the talks dragged on, activists staged a sit-in at the conference center and directed their ire at the United States, chanting phrases including “Climate justice now!” and “U.S. out!” Many of them, including Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace’s international executive director, were thrown out of the conference and had their accreditation badges revoked.
Before being removed, Naidoo said, “We are here to stand with the most vulnerable countries, whose basic survival needs have not been met by the men and women in that conference hall. . . . The United States delegation is right now organizing, line by line, the means by which United Nations member states will be eradicated from the map. We will not tolerate this.”
The State Department declined to comment on the protests or the ongoing negotiations.
The talks nearly fell apart in the middle of the day Friday when Nkoana-Mashabane released a vaguely worded document that called on the conference’s 194 parties to “develop a legal framework applicable to all” after 2020 to address climate change.
That sparked resistance from delegates such as Selwin Hart, the lead finance negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States.
“We had to come up with something significantly more ambitious,” Hart said, adding that the delegates remained at the table because “there is an honest commitment that this is the place where important decisions on climate change should be made.”
But, Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the D.C.-based Bipartisan Policy Center, questioned in an e-mail whether the “dysfunctional” process that came out of the United Nations should dictate American climate policy.
“The lesson is simple — climate leadership can and must spring from U.S. economic and security interests, not as a U.N. byproduct,” Bledsoe wrote.