JOHANNESBURG – The U.S. does not expect this year's climate change conference in South Africa to yield a binding international agreement to stop global warming, the top U.S. negotiator said Monday.
But Todd Stern, on the first of what he said would be several visits to South Africa before the Durban talks open in late November, said he does expect progress on several fronts, including some of particular concern to Africa, the continent expected to be hardest hit by climate change.
Stern told reporters high expectations were part of the reason many feared the 2009 Copenhagen round of climate change talks showed there was no hope for producing a legally binding successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto provisions capping greenhouse gas emissions by industrial countries expire in 2012.
South Africa hosts the second round since Copenhagen. Talks in Mexico last year ended with modest agreements, and a sense progress could be made despite the problems exposed at Copenhagen, where developed and developing nations clashed bitterly.
"I do think it's important that expectations get set in a way that is realistic," Stern said. "You do things in a non-legally binding context, but a quite real context. You try to move forward on that basis."
Stern said he expected the focus in Durban to be on turning agreements made in Mexico into realities, including plans for a fund and a research center to develop nonpolluting technologies that could help impoverished African countries cope with climate change. Stern also said Durban could see progress on saving Africa's forests and ensuring funds keep flowing to African and other vulnerable countries, including low-lying island nations that face being flooded out of existence.
In a rift that became particularly clear in Copenhagen, poorer nations complain that the industrialized world that grew rich off polluting industries should make legally binding commitments to deeper cuts in the emissions of the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. The poor countries also demand that the rich pay to help developing nations buy clean technology and cope with the droughts, floods and other disruptions associated with global warming. Developing nations also say they cannot be denied polluting technologies, at least in the short to medium term.
Developing countries balk at legal restrictions that could hurt their economies, particularly when poorer countries like China and India, who have become some of the world's biggest polluters, also are resisting legal restrictions.
"A legally binding agreement would be a good thing at a time when the major players are prepared to be legally bound, which I don't think is the case yet," Stern said. "We're not prepared to enter into a legal agreement that leaves China, India ... on the sidelines."
In the U.S., Stern and President Barack Obama face a Congress that is more hostile to environmental regulation after the Republicans prevailed in recent elections. Stern said Monday that he could not predict whether the U.S. would pass legislation addressing climate change before Durban, but said it remained a priority for Obama.
In his State of the Union address in January, Obama called for 80 percent of U.S. electricity to come from clean sources by 2035. Stern said ramping up clean energy could help create jobs, making it appealing to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
South Africa also has identified clean energy as an industry that could create jobs in a country where more than a quarter of the work force is unemployed. Stern said the economics of fighting climate change was high on his agenda in his talks in South Africa.