After climate talks in Durban, a more truly global solution

The big breakthrough at the Durban climate talks was that India, China, and other big carbon emitters agreed to seek a legal pact with the West by 2015. A global problem needs a global solution.

AP Photo/Andy Wong
A Beijing resident carries a pollution detector towards a garbage-burning facility near his home. People in China are demanding the right to know how polluted their skies are – a political movement felt at climate change talks last week in Durban, South Africa.

The world’s strategy on climate change – once split between rich and poor nations – just became more truly global.

The moment arrived at the latest United Nations talks on atmospheric warming that ended last weekend in Durban, South Africa. More than 190 nations agreed to begin treating every country as an offending contributor of greenhouse gases – with every country also a contributor to solutions in like measure.

That’s a first. The delegates finally realized that if erratic weather knows no national borders, then perhaps a pact on climate change ought to avoid the old-style nationalist posturings on who does what first. The Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t give a hoot about earthling politics.

The agreement merely promises that nations will negotiate a legally binding agreement by 2015 that would impose cuts in carbon emissions starting after 2020. But the bigger breakthrough is that India, China, and other big emitters among developing nations finally accepted that they must join a pact with “legal force” alongside the West. They were forced to shift their position because too many small, poor nations want action now and have largely given up trying to get rich nations to take the largest hit.

The start year of 2020 is significant. Many climate scientists say carbon pollution needs to begin dropping by then in order to keep the average global temperatures from rising by 4 degrees Celsius – a level seen as highly disruptive.

It would be easy to say that delegates have simply kicked the can down the road for future politicians to take the heat. But steps on climate change come incrementally – despite nearly two decades of hope for a big-bang pact.

The old issues of “equity” between poor and rich nations haven’t gone away. But talks had become too bogged down over questions of who pollutes more or which nations would be hurt by imposing tough caps on their emitters.

President Obama and other leaders had to bring all nations into seeking a single pact. He was stymied by lawmakers in Congress from states dependent on fossil fuels and who insist that any deal include China and India. Now Mr. Obama can begin to engage a skeptical Congress on joining a universal agreement by 2015.

“All the major players are going to have to be in,” said US negotiator Todd Stern, with “no trapdoors, no Swiss cheese.”

A global spirit of unity will help push along each nation’s own efforts to improve energy efficiency and adopt clean energy sources. A global competition in solar and wind industries has already started while the global auto industry keeps raising mileage standards. The Durban meeting also made progress on saving the world’s forests.

Necessity has become the mother of compromise at these talks. Perhaps by 2015, they can lead directly to action at the smokestack and tailpipe.

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