ANALYSIS: Kyoto debate certain, but media missing the real question: what would a world without Kyoto look like?

Publish date: December 1, 2011

Much of the media’s reporting coming out of the Durban Climate Summit, or COP17, has focused on the push and pull from nations who want to keep the soon- to-expire Kyoto Protocol alive and those who would rather take it off life support and allow it to give up the ghost, as it will next year if not renewed.

As the world’s only legally binding climate agreement, many environmental groups as well as an overwhelming bloc of developing nations – many of which are island nations that would become spots like Atlantis on the map as the seas rise by predictable levels – are fighting like mad to renew the protocols.

Others, like China, Brazil, India, Russia, Japan, the United States and Canada – some of which signed the protocol and others, notably the US, did not – prefer to see a future without it by building on the Copenhagen Accord reached two years ago at COP15.

If the US had joined the protocol, about 55 percent of the world’s emissions would be regulated. But when former President Bill Clinton was blocked in his quest to join Kyoto by a unanimous US Senate vote, the percentage of emissions controlled by Kyoto fell to 25 percent. Other Kyoto detractors have left the EU, Switzerland and Norway as lone champions of the protocol, and a downward turn of regulated emissions to about 15 percent.

If the US had joined the protocol, about 55 percent of global emissions at the time would have been regulated. But former presient President Clinton was steamrolled by a unanimous Senate vote against ratifiying Kyoto, and the  the percentage regulated emissions fell to 25 percent. More Kyoto detractors have left the EU, Switzerland and Norway as long champions of the protocol, hence loweing the percentage of regulated emissions to about 15 percent.

The Pledge and Review system promoted by the US and China and underpinning the Copenhagen Accord, leaves committed nations to figuring out how to set their own emissions targets – and not much else. This would provide a viable framework if big emitters could agree on a common framework for monitoring, revision and verification of mitigation actions. But so far they can’t.

The bigger problem is that these independently set targets are not nearly enough to slash emissions that must be stopped from entering the Earth’s atmosphere by 2020 to stand a 50/50 chance of avoiding a worldwide temperature increase at two degrees – the UN International Panel on Climate Change’s point of no return. Some Island states support this goal, although a mere 1.5 degree global average temperature rise would leave many island inhabitable.

Equally important is that no one, in contrast to COP15, expects Durban to end in any legally binding deal beyond a possible extension of the Kyoto Protocol. The EU and like-minded nations want a new legally binding agreement in whatever form by 2015 but not without certain conditions. The EU will only initiate Clean Development Projects in Least Developed Countries and only if other industrialized countries agrees to join. Other big emitters, led by the US, China and India, prefer to put off to that year even the mere discussion of a legally binding agreement. Canada, which is currently a Kyoto signatory with obligations is rumored to  be itching to pull out of Kyoto in a months time.

The question that all but a handful of media organizations seem to have eluded, however, is what would a world without the Kyoto Protocol look like?

The Kyoto Protocol’s day of reckoning around the corner

Negotiated with much fanfare in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was supposed to be a first step toward much more ambitious actions on climate change. But with its impending fade into irrelevance, the very UN climate procedure is at risk. Some observers even argue that the credibility of the UN system as a whole is at stake

Yet, even under the best of circumstances, the Kyoto Protocol would have made a barely measurable dent in the amount of greenhouse gases flowing into the world’s atmosphere.

First, the United States decided not to ratify the treaty, so its emissions aren’t even covered by the pact. Yesterday, as reported the Washington Post, labor groups, environmental groups, and political blocs in the US resorted to tactics of shaming the government by forming the Climate Ethics Committee, which calls on the government to summon a moral obligation toward the climate and the world – traditionally a sore spot for the US.

Since Kyoto came into effect, China leapfrogged the US to become the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide.

But China is treated like a developing country under Kyoto, which means it has no obligations to cut anything other than what it wants.

Jennifer Morgan, director of the Climate and Energy Program at the World Resources Institute told the US-based National Public Radio that Kyoto’s day of reckoning now looms.

“The Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period, its first set of targets, ends next year. So the big question is, ‘What happens next?'” she said. “Do the Kyoto countries, like Europe, move forward and put their new targets into a legally binding treaty?”

Canada, Russia and Japan have already nixed that, saying they are not interested in pledging new reductions under Kyoto.

The US and China, unsurprisingly, prefer the approach of the Copenhagen Accord – pledging individual action without any binding treaty. It was, in fact,the Americans and the Chinese who big-footed the deadlocked COP15 in the eleventh hour to cement this deal.

It was fairly evident as the presidential motorcades roared to the airport to travel back to Washington? that the Copenhagen Accord had massive built-in potential to fall short of the two-degree goal.

“We have very little space left in our atmosphere to be continuing to pollute before we cross certain thresholds where impacts will be inevitable,” Morgan said. “So no matter what you’re looking at, the current commitments are really quite inadequate.”

Does the Kyoto Protocol have a future?

The EU has been the Kyoto Protocol’s most ardent booster, but in Durban is feeling a bit ambivalent.

Michael Grubb, a professor of climate change and energy policy at the University of Cambridge, told NPR that on the plus side, Europe likes the treaty because it has spelled out international rules, such as standards for counting carbon emissions. Europe uses those rules to limit its own emissions.

“Europe does not want to kind of jump into a void where there aren’t any really agreed rules that bind on anything,” Grubb says. “It’s very reluctant to kill off the only actual legal framework that we’ve got.”

On the downside, Europe is disappointed that the rest of the world did not follow its example. And Grubb says the economic crisis there has diminished the continent’s appetite for more aggressive action:

“So there’s a feeling that Europe is in a bit of a holding position on climate change, I’d say.”

The loudest push for the Kyoto Protocol comes from the developing world, which sees the Protocol as a vital symbol of commitment by the rich world to clean up a problem the poor world is already bearing the brunt of. Africa alone – an entire continent – has barely any appreciable emissions to post. Yet its ravaging droughts, floods, political unrest, and the new emerging class of climate migrants are testament to the fact that climate change has already arrived there.

South Africa’s foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, is presiding over the climate talks in Durban. And she has said repeatedly that it’s vital to these talks to either rekindle the Kyoto treaty, or to make progress on a successor.

“If this question is not resolved, the outcome on other matters in the negotiations will become difficult. A solution must be found,” Nkoana-Mashabane was quoted by NPR as saying.

And she’s being nice. Other nations gathered in Durban have been threatening to pull the plug on the whole process if the Kyoto treaty is not reinvigorated. And they can do that because the UN operates by consensus.

Pulling the plug would clear the table

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told NPR that such a move would affect everything that’s on the table at Durban, which is much more than commitments to limit emissions.

“If you think about it, it’s actually counterproductive for developing countries to not move forward on adaptation, on reducing deforestation, on climate finance, because those are all things in their own self-interest,”said Meyer.

“But the level of emotion and anger could be so big that they wouldn’t think in those kind of terms and they would sort of block everything.”

Technical frameworks and structures set up by Kyoto would surely provide the framework for future negotiations even if countries don’t adopt new commitments under the protocol. What other model do they have?

Are there alternatives to the Kyoto track?

A history of other COP meetings shows the steady marginalization of Kyoto, but also point to some other alternative tracks.

In 2008, developing nations themselves refused to sign on to Kyoto reductions at COP14 in Bali. This split the talks between those seeking to keep negotiations on the Kyoto path and others, who favored the “long-term cooperative action” approach – essentially what came out of COP15, but which also allowed for coverage of some areas not addressed by Kyoto. For instance REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation),a mechanism that lets developing countries earn income for saving endangered rainforests, is a classic example of long-term cooperative action.

One of the more fascinating and successful outcomes of COP15 was the emergence of REDD as a global mechanism in its own right, and is included in several regional programs – such as in California.

Another interesting development that’s gotten very little attention is the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF), an initiative formally launched at UN climate-change talks in Poznan, Poland, in December, 2008.  The GCF is comprised of 16 states from around the world – three from the United States, four from Indonesia, five from Brazil, and one each from Mexico and Nigeria. 

There’s an outside chance this could serve as a template for other multilateral arrangements outside of or tangential to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, under whose aegis the current climate negotiations take place.

So, there are alternatives. But promising as they may be, it would take years to build them into the same kind of rallying cry Kyoto has been for the last 14 years.

Yet Kyoto is severely hobbled: It only governs 20 percent of the world’s emissions. So even if delegate nations decide to keep Kyoto on life support in Durban, Kyoto seems already to have lost its practical role as a foundation for a more ambitious climate change agreement.

Svend Soeyland contributed to this analysis from Durban, South Africa.

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