What can be expected from the U.N. climate conference

Delegates attend on Nov. 28, 2011 the opening of U.N. talks on climate change in Durban. Topping the agenda in Durban is the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the only global pact with targets for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions, whose first round of pledges expires at the end of 2012. 

Kai Ryssdal: The alliance to save the planet reconvenes today in Durban, South Africa. It's the most recent meeting of the United Nations conference on climate change. The last one worth a mention was two years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark, where negotiators couldn't agree on how to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It's been about a year and a half since the U.S. Congress couldn't agree on the same thing and gave up trying on a comprehensive energy bill.

Which leaves us...where, exactly? Right now it leaves us with Marketplace's Scott Tong on the line, from our Sustainability Desk. Hey Scott.

Scott Tong: Hello Kai.

Ryssdal: So I ask this first question with a little bit of trepidation, but what are we expecting out of Durban and this meeting?

Tong: Well here's one word you're not going to be expecting to hear: comprehensive. As we heard in Copenhagen a couple years ago, as in binding carbon caps for everyone. The one thing they all agree on is there's no political bandwidth for that, either in big countries like the United States or elsewhere, to overhaul how they drive, how they get power, how they ship things, etc. But the incremental category, the optimists have a few things they want to do. They want to extend the existing caps for the rich countries that signed on to that Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

Ryssdal: These are caps on greenhouse gases, right?

Tong: That's right. And as you recall, that's minus the United States, and those caps expire next year. They also want to push for a global deal in 2015 -- that's what the Europeans are marketing, they think that's the earliest they could reasonably come to an agreement. And they want to develop what's called the Green Fund. That is $100 billion for the poor countries to buy clean energy and adapt to the more frequent and more volatile temperature extremes -- which are going to be virtually certain, according to a brand new report from the climate scientists. So those are some of the potential deliverables, as they say.

Ryssdal: 'Potential' being the key word there. If the politicians can't agree on anything, though, what's really happening? What are the people who do this stuff for a living say?

Tong: Well let's take the International Energy Agency. They're widely recognized as some of the best in the business on energy projections, and they gave their latest forecast today. The IEA says the way the world is burning oil and gas and coal, it's on track to heat up 6 degrees Celsius in the long run. That's more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ryssdal: Frame that for me -- is that a lot?

Tong: Well, OK, 2 degrees Celsius is what the U.N. wants to limit it to. They say beyond 2 degrees -- unbelievable, catastrophic things are going to happen in the world. But IEA economist Fatih Birol, today he says we're almost locked into 2 degrees already. As he tells it, it's like you're on a carbon diet.

Fatih Birol: You eat a very good Turkish baklava, and you have all of 80 percent of your calories are eaten up. Only 20 percent for the rest of the day, or for the next 25 years.

Ryssdal: That's a great line.

Tong: A little humor from the gallows, right? In case you need another reason to be pessimistic: The world last year, it spewed more CO2 than any other year ever. And that puts us on a path to blow past the climate scientists' acknowledged worst case scenario from a few years back, Kai.

Ryssdal: So what is there to be hopeful about, if anything? I mean, because a lot of people are working really hard on this, right?

Tong: And a lot of investors are. If you're a proponent of clean tech, big bets are still being made out there. By one estimate, it's a $250 billion market today, on its way to almost double by 2020. Cars are getting more efficient; solar and wind are getting more competitive. The interesting thing is, the bankers at HSBC, they think emerging economies will lead this. That is, countries like Korea and, of course, China, think low carbon is not a job-killing, hold-your-nose future, but rather the next big thing. And they want to get there first.

Ryssdal: Scott Tong at our Sustainability Desk. Scott, thanks a lot.

Tong: You're welcome.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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