The Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only legal agreement to fight global warming, survived Copenhagen but its future remains very much in doubt.
The treaty, which binds 37 nations to emissions cuts, is still “an active agreement,” but it appears “to be on life support,” Erich Pica, executive director of Friends of the Earth USA, told SolveClimate.
The Dec. 7-18 Copenhagen talks failed to resolve the rich-poor impasse over the 1997 protocol.
Instead, the world agreed to “continue its work” on Kyoto until the next climate conference in Mexico in December 2010 — leaving open the possibility of downgrading or replacing it less than a year from now.
For some Kyoto supporters, the simple fact that it wasn’t buried in Copenhagen is a kind of victory. For others, especially poor nations, the ambiguity around the treaty’s future foretells its imminent end.
“If I were a developing country, I would be nervous about this agreement,” Pica said, referring to the non-binding Copenhagen Accord that emerged from the talks.
Arun Jaitly, leader of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said:
“Admittedly, the Copenhagen Accord does not contain a specific statement that the Kyoto Protocol is no longer operational.” But, he added, “there is … an implied abandonment of the Protocol and the Bali Action Plan.”
Kyoto imposes mandatory carbon cuts on rich nations, with the exception of the United States, which never ratified the treaty and has no obligations for curbs on the poor.
Its future was at the heart of the two-week talks.
The treaty’s first “commitment period” ends in two years. Until then, developed states are legally bound to a 5.2 percent carbon cut below 1990 levels by 2012.
In Copenhagen, debate raged over whether to lock in the second phase of the protocol post 2012, with deeper cuts of at least 40 percent by 2020, as poor nations nations wanted, or scrap it altogether in favor of a brand new framework, a position favored by the rich.
The first drafts coming out of the summit called for Kyoto’s extension to at least 2017. The issue was on the table until the very last minute, according to observers.
But in the end, no deadlines and no specific caps on emissions were set.
The G-77 plus China says it is determined to keep Kyoto alive — along with a parallel legally binding agreement that would force comparable obligations on the United States.
Rich vs. Poor
Poor nations see the ditching of Kyoto as an end to the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility,” which ensures rich nations carry the world’s carbon-cutting burden.
Wealthy countries, on the other hand, want one, brand-new binding agreement for all carbon polluters.
In fact, rich states bound by Kyoto’s commitments have long been ready to jump ship — although some more than others, and for different reasons.
For instance, in the EU, Kyoto is domestic law until 2020 already, but the bloc would much prefer a new international framework that covers the U.S. and other major emitters.
Japan wants out because it feels it got a bad wrap in 1997. Being the host country, it took on strict commitments that it is now struggling meet. It is also concerned over economic competitiveness with China and South Korea, which have no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol.
The Australians want a single, bottom-up alternative to Kyoto, where nations pursue hard emissions cuts and review the results later.
Canada never implemented its Kyoto commitments, and has no plans to, as its emissions continue to surge wildly, due largely to tar sands development.
The U.S., for its part, has made it crystal clear it will not be part of any international climate regime — Kyoto or otherwise — that does not force mandatory carbon cuts on China and other big polluters.
The Copenhagen Accord — brokered by President Obama and decided with the BASIC countries of Brazil, South Africa, India and China — is considered a first step in America’s climate strategy for the world.
Kyoto Battle—To Be Continued
Suggesting that the Copenhagen Accord has ushered in a new era in global climate policymaking, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:
The countries that stayed on the “periphery of the Kyoto Protocol” are now “at the heart of global climate action.”
“We have the foundation for the first truly global agreement that will limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he added. The next step is to “turn this agreement into a legally binding treaty.”
The accord was supported by all of the world’s major carbon polluters and “noted” by the Conference of Parties. But it does not put an end to the wrangling over Kyoto.
According to India’s climate change envoy in Copenhagen, Shyam Saran, the BASIC nations, which emerged as a powerful bloc in Copenhagen,
“have an unambiguous position — that the Kyoto Protocol is a legally valid instrument, and this instrument must remain effective, operative as we take this process forward post Copenhagen.”
Rajendra Pachauri, who heads the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), called Kyoto “sacrosanct” for certain countries.
“Even if the new agreement goes by another name, the essential features of Kyoto Protocol must be preserved,” he said.
There is also the issue of the two carbon markets spawned by the Kyoto Protocol.
Head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Yvo de Boer has long argued that a new regime could take some eight years to put in place, and that the Kyoto Protocol must be extended until after 2012 in order to keep current carbon markets afloat.