Climate Talks in Durban Wrap Up, but Climate Action Must Continue on Every Level

The international climate talks in Durban ended on Sunday with a hard-earned agreement. After last-minute negotiations, 194 nations signed on to develop a new legally enforceable compact to reduce the pollution that causes climate change.

Some observers thought the inability to accomplish more at the talks was a sign that the international effort to address climate was crumbling. While I would have welcomed more progress at Durban, I firmly believe the global community must continue to tackle this problem together.

The climate storm we are sailing into is so powerful we need all hands on deck. We need international action, national action, business action, and city-based action. We need it all. And we need it now.

The year 2011 delivered one extreme weather event after another, from devastating floods in Thailand to scorching drought in East Africa. The United States experienced 14 disastrous weather events that caused more than a billion dollars in damages each—an all-time record. The droughts and fires in Texas alone left farmers and ranchers with $5.2 billion in losses.

The costs don’t end there. In a groundbreaking study published last month in Health Affairs, NRDC scientists and university economists looked at six climate-change-related events in the United States and found they accounted for more than $14 billion in health-related care costs and more than 760,000 interactions with the health care system.

Last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published an exhaustive scientific report concluding that global warming is causing more extreme weather events and they will become even more frequent in the decades ahead.

We must turn this around now, before climate change becomes even more destructive.

One agreement alone can’t achieve the pollution reductions we need, but many forces working together can.

Here in the United States, we have cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago making firm commitments to reduce their carbon emissions. We have California establishing a statewide cap-and-trade program to curb carbon from large polluters like power plants and refineries. We have the Obama administration proposing new clean car standards that will cut vehicle emissions of carbon pollution in half by 2025 compared to today. The administration is also expected to announce limits on carbon pollution from new power plants.

Of course we still need Congress to pass comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, but in the meantime, progress is being made at many levels.

We need to keep things moving on the international stage as well. The Durban talks got the world community headed in the right direction. Here is what it achieves:

A Plan for Reaching Legally Enforceable Limits: All 194 nations agreed to draft an agreement with legal force for reducing climate pollution. Nations would be compelled to meet their obligations by the force of international law. Of course, this international law would have to be backed by strong actions at home in the largest emitter as the atmosphere wants action, not pledges.  Significantly, China and India agreed to this approach for the first time, something the U.S. Congress has always viewed as essential in order for it to ratify an international agreement.

An Extension of the Kyoto Protocol: Countries agreed to extend the protocol for at least another five years, ensuring the world still has a legally binding climate agreement in place. The protocol has a two-tiered system, one for developed nations and one for developing nations. Since it was launched in 1997, nations like China, India, and Brazil have emerged as economic powerhouses and major emitters. The hope is that the next legal agreement will reflect these changes and hold all nations accountable for their share of pollution.

Greater Transparency and Accountability: At the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, countries committed to reducing climate pollution at home. The best way for countries to demonstrate they are delivering on these promises is through accurate reporting and verification. In Durban, countries agreed to specific guidelines for what that reporting will look like and what role expert reviews will play in ensuring that countries are living up to their commitments.

A Green Climate Fund: This fund will help channel investment toward developing nations’ efforts to confront climate change, including expanding clean energy, avoiding deforestation, and adapting to shifting conditions in sea levels, flood patterns, and drought.

A Technology Center and Network: This effort will help developing nations access and embrace the latest in low-carbon technologies.  These technologies are now common place throughout the world, so this new network will help all countries tap into the growing expertise and financing.