CANCUN, MEXICO -- Advocates for poor nations angrily assailed Japan at the Cancun climate talks on Wednesday for planning to kill off the Kyoto Protocol, a move they say might dent chances of progress in the two-week talks.
"It was really a slap in the face because all of the developing countries are totally united to the fact that the Kyoto Protocol must continue," Lim Li Lin of the Third World Network, a nonprofit based in Malaysia, told SolveClimate News.
Japan announced that it will oppose extension of the Kyoto pact beyond 2012, the strongest articulation of its position ever made. Instead, it will fight for a new global deal to cover all nations based on the Copenhagen Accord, in line with U.S. policy in Cancun.
Hideki Minamikawa, Japan's vice minister for global environmental affairs, told reporters covering the Nov. 29 to Dec. 10 talks late Wednesday that "it does not make sense" to continue Kyoto because it "covers only about 27 percent of global CO2 emissons."
For many, the announcement was an unwelcome surprise.
"As a Japanese national, I am truly shocked by the statements made by the Japanese government," Yuri Onodera, an activist with Friends of the Earth Japan, said.
"These are not negotiating tactics," Onodera continued. "This is a highest-level decision by the prime minister himself."
Agreement on Kyoto's continuation requires complete consensus from all 194 parties to the UN climate body.
Still, Onodera predicted that it will live on as the world's main weapon to fight climate change.
The pact remains sacrosanct for the 130 developing nations in the UN climate change negotiations. Keeping it alive is seen as a cornerstone of a Cancun outcome.
Lim said that Tokyo may end up softening its stance.
"At the moment, only Japan has really publicly taken that very strong position," she said. "It's yet to be seen whether they will back down on it."
That will depend on how other rich nations respond, analysts say.
"There are a lot of parties lined up hiding behind Japan," Stephen Porter, director of the climate change program at the Center for International Environmental Law, told Solve Climate News. However, "I don't think that we should have a funeral mass just yet."
Observers note that the EU, in particular, has expressed interest in extending the treaty.
Kyoto commits 37 industrialized nations to cut emissions by at least 5.2 below 1990 levels. The first commitment period ends in 2012. Developing nations want to lock in a second phase of the protocol, with deeper cuts of at least 40 percent by 2020.
But Japan and other rich states, most notably Russia and Canada, oppose the extension because it does not cover the world's biggest greenhouse gas producers.
The U.S. never ratified the agreement, and it imposes no carbon curbs on major emerging economies like China and India.
Japan is concerned over competitiveness with the world's economic giants and South Korea, a rising regional star.
For developing countries, Kyoto guarantees something they don't want to give up: "common but differentiated responsibility," which ensures rich nations carry the world's carbon-cutting burden.
It also serves to safeguard against catastrophic effects of warming in their countries, advocates said. A Kyoto collapse "could mean a 4 degree increase in temperatures, or even worse, and a disaster for the planet," said Sivan Kartha, senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Kartha and others pointed to a breach of trust.
It "disrespects the people most vulnerable to climate change," said Mohamed Adow, senior climate advisor for Christian Aid, a British organization, and could harm "the livelihoods and the well being of millions of people across the world."
Progress on a global climate architecture is now "at risk," he said.
Legally, Kyoto to Live On
As a legal matter, it makes sense to continue the treaty, said Porter.
"There's been so much time and effort that's gone into building the structures," he said. "I don't think even Japan's position is rejecting everything in there — the reporting requirements, all the institutional structures. I think it's more the politics around whose got commitments."
Of course, the "guts of it are in the commitments," he continued, and there's "not much there" without them. But a streamlined treaty for post-2012 "that creates some coherent structure" out of the best pieces of Kyoto is a possibiliy, he said.
There is also the issue of the two carbon markets spawned by the protocol, including the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
Observers say there's still disagreement over whether the CDM can continue if countries fail to agree to extend Kyoto.
"The projects in the pipeline have life times that go out years and years. There's nothing intrinsic that would stop those," Porter said. "The machinery and institutions of the protocol don't die at 2012."