In a day of mixed messages, Environment Minister Peter Kent has called for speedy negotiations on a global climate treaty by 2015 – but also rejected a South African proposal to extend the negotiating sessions at this week's summit.
After bashing the Kyoto climate treaty for months, Mr. Kent shifted to a more conciliatory tone on Thursday, declaring that he supports a swift move toward a legally binding treaty to replace Kyoto and prevent the average world temperature from rising by 2C or more.
But talks are moving at a painfully slow pace, with many issues unresolved and less than 24 hours remaining until the scheduled end of negotiations. The hosts, South Africa, are suggesting that the talks could be extended by "some hours or days," Mr. Kent revealed in a conference call with journalists.
Extending the final session into the following day is a common tradition at the annual climate summit. But this time, Mr. Kent said, it should not happen, because many countries have flight reservations on Friday and cannot change their plans.
Canada has been widely criticized for not fulfilling its Kyoto pledges, rejecting any extension of the pact, and for unconfirmed reports it plans to withdraw from Kyoto this month. On Wednesday, Mr. Kent bluntly told the Durban summit that the treaty is "in the past."
But he has tried to soften Canada's image by emphasizing his concern about global warming, his enthusiasm for a legally binding treaty much sooner than the 2020 date that some countries have suggested, and his willingness to accept the "legitimate aspirations" of developing countries such as China and India.
"Time is really running short, in terms of the 2 degrees, and in Canada we're already past that in the Arctic, and we really do need to find a way to get meaningful significant reductions from the major developing economies," Mr. Kent told a small group of journalists.
"We think there should be no pause in our efforts to reach a successor agreement to Kyoto."
Later in the day, however, he put a different spin on the talks, emphasizing that a 2015 target for reaching a climate treaty is nothing new. "We're not setting a hard target on this date. If it takes somewhat longer, that would be fine."
He also hastened to dispel any suggestion that Canada was taking a more conciliatory line than its ally, the United States. "The American position and the Canadian position are very similar," Mr. Kent said.
The chief U.S. negotiator, Todd Stern, sparked his own confusion by appearing to support a European proposal for a "road map" to a legally binding climate treaty – and later being contradicted by his own government. "He did not say that the United States supports a legally binding agreement," the U.S. State Department said in a statement after Mr. Stern made his comments at a press briefing.
Aware of Canada's unpopular status at Durban, the federal government has kept Mr. Kent largely under wraps. He has not given any press conferences in the conference centre where other countries often meet the media, and he cancelled his expected daily briefings to the media on Wednesday and Thursday, aside from a single teleconference.
When he attended a public panel discussion at Durban on Thursday, the government did not tell the media. Journalists were eventually made aware of his appearance by activists. His aides whisked him out a back door at the end of the panel, but Mr. Kent finally agreed to talk to three journalists who chased him down.
Conditions for a deal
The major players have each set conditions for a deal by December 9, the final day of the Durban meeting:
CHINA: Developed countries must extend their existing obligations beyond 2012, start a fund to channel climate aid to developing countries, and distribute low-carbon technologies to developing countries. There should also be a review in 2015 on progress in fighting climate change, and continued separation of the responsibilities of developed and developing countries.
UNITED STATES: It has accepted that emerging economies such as China take on weaker commitments in terms of absolute emissions cuts, as poorer countries which are still growing their economies, but insists China and other major economies stand behind their commitments with equal legal force.
EUROPEAN UNION: The EU was the first to open the door to a global deal in 2015, proposing that option in advance of the Durban conference. The EU has also already agreed to China's first condition, to extend its Kyoto obligations beyond 2012. But it has made a condition to extending Kyoto that all major emitters including the United States and China agree to sign by 2015 a global deal submitting their own emissions to international curbs from 2020
CANADA, RUSSIA, JAPAN: Have all said they won't extend the Kyoto Protocol, preferring a global deal involving major emerging economies and the United States.