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U.N. climate summit begins in South Africa

South Africa President Jacob Zuma and UN climate chief Christiana Figueres talk on November 28, 2011 during the opening of UN talks on climate change in Durban.

Jeremy Hobson: The annual U.N. Climate Summit starts today in Durban, South Africa. You might remember last year's Cancun summit for the ground breaking deal that's being implemented... oh, maybe that was the one the year before in Copenhagen, that produced a landmark agreement that -- well, actually, these summits don't have a great track-record.

So joining us now to discuss what we might expect -- or not expect -- out of Durban is Marketplace sustainability desk reporter Eve Troeh. Good morning.

Eve Troeh: Good morning.

Hobson: Well, why do they keep holding these conferences if it doesn't seem like anything big ever happens at them?

Troeh: Well, nothing big seems to happen, but little pieces of the puzzle do get figured out and that's enough to keep people going. Last year in Mexico, we ended with a standing ovation, which I think was unprecedented. People were very happy the talks didn't collapse, because they almost did in Copenhagen the year before.

And we came out with something called the Cancun Agreements -- that made progress on a few things: deforestation, getting funding and technology to poorer countries so they can fight climate change faster. But we also saw the Kyoto Protocol brought to the brink of death, and all these countries that have signed on to this legally binding emissions reductions targets said, hey, the U.S. and China -- the biggest polluters in the world -- are not even part of this. Why should we keep going?

Hobson: And nothing has really changed on this front, right? The U.S. and China are not ready to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol.

Troeh: No, definitely not. And the future of the Kyoto Protocol is really the big issue we'll see the next two weeks. It expires next year if the countries who are on it don't sign on for a second commitment period. And you know, when the treaty was written in the 1990s, the idea was that developing countries -- the less industrialized -- were less responsible for pollution, so they didn't need to agree to reduce emissions. And the U.S. and others say hey, the world's a very different place now -- those countries are where a lot of the world's goods are made.

Hobson: So what are what are we expecting out of the Durban Conference?

Troeh: Lots of people speculating on this. I talked to David Waskow, he's in charge of climate change for Oxfam America, a huge NGO, he says there is a danger we could come out of these two weeks with agreements that add up to less than what we already have on the books.

David Waskow: If the U.S. puts down a really rigid red line in terms of what they want a country -- like China or India or Brazil, for example -- to do, rather than finding ways to keep the ball rolling, we could see backsliding instead.

Troeh: So backsliding would mean countries back out of Kyoto, they set voluntary targets for emissions. Which I heard one expert describe as "letting kids decide how much homework they want to do." Yeah, not very likely to get the job done.

Hobson: Probably not going to work. Marketplace's Eve Troeh from our Sustainability Desk. Eve, thank you.

Troeh: Thank you.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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