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Durban climate change talks: Experts see warmer world as inevitable

Many of the nations gathered in Durban, South Africa, this week have proposed voluntary cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. But even if all of those cuts were successful, they would still result in catastrophic climate change. 

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Industrialized nations, not including the U.S., have made legally binding commitments to reduce their emissions as part of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The commitment period for when nations can sign up for the Kyoto Protocol expires next year. Negotiators have the option of extending it, coming up with a replacement, or allowing this legal framework to fade away. Some developped nations have opposed extending the treaty, over the objections of developing nations. Most recently Canada, which is not meeting its original pledge, appears poised to pull out.

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Some sort of continuation is needed, said Joe Romm, editor of the blog Climate Progress and a senior fellow at the progressive think tank Center for American Progress.

"I think voluntary reductions are valuable, but ultimately, they will not replace serious, mandatory commitments," Romm said. 

A new treaty or any substantial action is unlikely to come from Durban, said Romm, who is not optimistic about the future.

"We are going to get 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) warming," he said. "I think the big question is whether we are going to get ultimately 5 or 6 degrees C (9 to 10.8 degrees F), which would be an unmitigated catastrophe."

Negotiators need to act on the future of the Kyoto Protocol, Höhne said. "This is really the last chance to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive; if there is no decision on it, then it doesn't have real meaning anymore."

Baby steps

At Durban, negotiators are also tackling more modest  issues, such as figuring out how to structure, and finance, a Global Climate Fund, which would funnel $100 billion a year to developing nations to help them cope with climate change. They will also work on reducing forest destruction and encouraging the development and sharing of clean technology.

Höhne sees reasons for hope, such as rapid progress regarding alternative energy sources, such as wind, the sun and biomass. [Top 10 Alternative Energy Bets]

"I am not that optimistic, but I have not given up the hope," he said.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

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