Pushing too hard at international climate change talks might have killed the only treaty regulating carbon emissions, host South Africa said Monday after concluding tense negotiations on how the world should respond to global warming.
Given the international financial crisis and competing national political interests, trying to force countries to do more than they are willing and able to do "would have resulted in a `no deal' in Durban, not only killing the Kyoto Protocol therefore, but possibly even the U.N. Convention on climate change itself," Edna Molewa, South Africa's environment minister, told reporters.
South Africa presided for two weeks over the talks, nudging and sometimes pushing longtime rivals to agree. On Sunday, a day and a half after the talks were to have ended, negotiators in the coastal city of Durban agreed to extend the Kyoto Protocol by five years. The 1997 agreement has binding emissions targets for some industrial countries but not the world's biggest carbon polluters, the U.S. and China. Durban's accord also envisions a new accord with binding targets for all countries to take effect in 2020.
Some critics have complained the outcome lacked ambition. The agreement did not commit nations to ensuring their greenhouse gas emissions start to decrease before 2020, which scientists say is crucial to preventing global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) above current levels by the end of this century.
Celine Charveriat of the anti-poverty group Oxfam called the Durban pact "a major disappointment." Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute was more measured, saying it was significant that Durban set the world on course to a legally binding agreement that would cover both developed and developing countries.
Until now, developed countries who have been contributing to global warming since the Industrial Revolution had been seen as bearing the greatest responsibility for reducing emissions. They argue that countries like China, Brazil and India should do more, while those emerging economic powers say abandoning dirty energy too quickly would hurt growth.
Molewa acknowledged Monday that South Africa is among the countries wary of "strangling our own industry, strangling our own program of poverty eradication."
"We need time and space to develop," she said.
South Africa stands out on the continent, emitting more global warming gases than any other African country. It is the 13th largest emitter in the world, according to U.S. government analysis.
Alf Wills, South Africa's chief climate negotiator, said many countries at the talks were wary of even moving toward taking on legal commitments.
"There was a risk that we could come out of Durban with no L-word in the document at all," said Wills, who joined Molewa at a Pretoria news conference Monday. "So, things have moved."
Wills said South Africa and other African nations had wanted more, even a new Kyoto-style agreement.
"We were fully aware that to achieve that goal might not be possible in Durban," he said, saying Africans instead focused on securing a fund to help poor countries cope with global warming and the transfer of clean energy and other technology from rich countries to poor.
African and other developing countries have been hardest hit by the floods and droughts associated with global warming, though they have historically contributed little in the way of greenhouse gas emissions.