Kyoto coma

As we start the six-month countdown to climate-change talks in Durban, Yang Fuqiang and Ang Li ask if there is any hope left for the existing treaty to tackle global emissions.

On June 18, the second round of 2011’s UN climate-change negotiations ended in Germany. As the talks drew to a close, the atmosphere was familiarly grim: little had been achieved. There was scattered discussion of holding more, informal, meetings between Bonn and the negotiations in Durban at the end of the year, which will mark the start of the final year of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol – the global treaty drawn up in 1997 to limit carbon emissions. But could more meetings make a difference to the outcome at Durban?

Japan, Russia and Canada have made clear that they will not be making any undertakings under Kyoto’s second commitment period – the mooted second phase of the global climate agreement, after the first expires in 2012. Developing nations insist this is a political step backwards for the climate-change negotiations process, a move that ignores the huge challenges ahead and shirks responsibilities. The European Union and Umbrella Group (a loose coalition of non-EU developed nations in the negotiations) have also expressed concern, saying this is a grave blow for the process.

Developing nations want to see a fair outcome from Durban – an agreement to go ahead with a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, during which Annex 1 industrialised nations commit to emissions cuts. At this crucial juncture, the European Union has failed to step up and take the lead in resolving the situation, preferring to line up with other developed nations and propose a new agreement under the Kyoto framework, which all major “emitting nations” must sign up to.

Those major emitters include the United States, the BASIC group of nations – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – and other developing countries. And it is clear that they will not accept such a condition. The United States made plain at Bangkok this year that it will not agree to emission cuts imposed by international agreement, or regulations on consequences for failing to achieve emission targets. The BASIC group and other high-emitting developing nations will naturally stick to the “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle – the idea that rich nations bear a heavier burden than poor in the fight against climate change– and refuse to discuss such conditions. The stance of the United States and BASIC nations makes this route impassable.

At the same time, developed nations continue to push for agreement on rules for monitoring domestic emissions cuts (long a source of contention that led to a stand-off between China and the United States at negotiations in Tianjin last year). If developed countries fail to secure agreement on this issue, it is almost certain they will stick to their guns and refuse to participate in a second commitment period under Kyoto. And, undoubtedly, poor nations will reject these conditions. During negotiations, developing countries have consistently demanded a second commitment period, but their richer counterparts keep coming up with new and unacceptable conditions in a bid to bring the twin-track negotiating process to an end.

Disagreements over a second commitment period, far from improving, are actually steadily getting worse. There are only 18 months left until Kyoto’s first commitment period ends, on the last day of 2012. It will not be easy to patch up these deep differences in such a short period of time. As a result, a seamless transition between the two phases looks less and less likely, challenging both the legal procedures for implementation and the status of the protocol. Some developed nations are refusing to recognise the second period of the Kyoto Protocol, while others are striving to add conditions that cannot be met (while indicating they will not boycott an agreement). And so a question mark hovers over the second commitment period: what form will it take? Will it happen at all?

Developing nations are holding firm on their support for the twin-track negotiating process, the need for emission cut pledges from rich nations in the second commitment period and the steady implementation of the negotiations and the agreements that come out of them.

How, then, should we interpret the political fate of the Kyoto Protocol? The second commitment period is currently in a coma and, if there is no progress in negotiations, there is no real hope for its future. Rather than being declared dead, however, it will remain in a vegetative state. Legally speaking, the second commitment period would still exist in these circumstances but, in reality, it would be an empty shell. The Kyoto Protocol includes many effective tools, such as the Clean Development Mechanism. If these can continue to play a role, can we say the second commitment period still exists? If there are no targets as part of the second phase of Kyoto and negotiations remain deadlocked, can those mechanisms survive the challenge and continue to play a role in balancing the climate obligations of developed and developing nations?

What will the consequences of this “coma” be for Kyoto? What is the protocol’s future? What are the political risks? These are all questions we need to face up to. In climate-change negotiations, it is not just the will to address global warming that is tested, but also the world’s ability to come up with a farsighted negotiations strategy and make the correct policy decision.

Yang Fuqiang is senior climate change and energy consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

Ang Li is climate and energy projects officer in WWF’s Beijing office.

Homepage image by UN Climate Talks shows UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres at negotiations in Bonn.