November 28, 2011 / 1:03 PM / 9 years ago

COLUMN-Kyoto is back as climate politics enter lost decade-Gerard Wynn

(The author is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.)

By Gerard Wynn

LONDON, Nov 28 (Reuters) - The Kyoto Protocol on global warming is flawed and ineffective but must now be extended as the only deal left to shore up international climate action as the economic downturn threatens a decade in limbo.

Unloved and out of fashion from birth, Kyoto is on the cusp of a mini-comeback as a political backstop: a small club of countries is poised to extend minimum commitments under the pact until a broader, legally binding deal comes into force by 2020.

The European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland are likely to agree to extend Kyoto beyond 2012 at a two-week conference which opened in Durban on Monday, in lieu of a wider deal involving the world’s two biggest emitters China and the United States.

That’s the best outcome on the table in South Africa.

It represents a gaping political failure: countries agreed in 2007 to sign a broad, global deal in Copenhagen in 2009 to come into force four years later.

Two years on, they are now poised to commit to sign in 2015 an agreement to come into force in 2020, instead.

It counts as a lost decade because the countries likely to agree to new binding curbs in the meantime account for just 14 percent of total carbon emissions today, and are flat or falling anyway.

The unlikely prospect of Japan and Russia joining in would bump that up to 23 percent.

China and the United States meanwhile have agreed voluntary action slightly tougher than their recent emissions trends.

The two countries have a history of squaring off at climate talks but in fact as the world’s top two emitters their interest in less ambition is perfectly aligned.

They should use the concession of another decade without binding targets to agree without fuss to all else on the table at Durban, notably a framework for a new, independent fund for climate aid for the world’s most vulnerable countries, rising to about $100 billion annually by 2020.


The failure so far to agree a broad, binding deal has weakened action worldwide: for example the EU has opted for the bottom end of its domestic target range through 2020 in the absence of an international deal.

Record low carbon prices in the EU emissions trading scheme, largely irrelevant for driving carbon cuts over the next decade, are a result of weak 2020 targets which have left the scheme with a glut of emissions permits.

The fact that Kyoto is legally binding is its strength: of the nearly 40 industrialised countries which signed up to targets through 2012, only Canada has walked away from its cap, despite an intervening global downturn.

But its legal force is also the biggest challenge to a successor: countries are unwilling to sign up to a second round until others join in, notably China and the United States, in an endless “you-first” stalemate.

Industrialised countries are critical of the 1997 Kyoto protocol because it binds them but lets off the hook the soaring pollution of developing countries.

Poorer countries and emerging economies meanwhile say rich nations haven’t honoured their responsibilities: they want more money and know-how to deal with more frequent droughts and floods and to cut their own emissions.


Kyoto formalised rules for measuring and reporting emissions against a cap, has spawned global carbon markets, and its 2012 cut-off has pressured countries to offer new voluntary emissions curbs through 2020.

But it has flaws. By cementing a rich-poor divide it set up a decade of argument. A trade in carbon offsets allowed egregious profit-taking by projects in China and India and their developed world brokers.

And it allows countries to ignore emissions from forestry, aviation and shipping.

Now the protocol must be extended, as a minimum action by a teetering world economy.

The hope is that the world can sign a broader deal in 2015 when recession is over and motivation renewed after the next major review of climate science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

But no-one should be under any illusions about how weak ambition has become, as negotiators try to replace one mandate agreed in 2007 with a near identical one in 2011.

Negotiators will try to agree slightly stronger words which the United States can accept nearing an election year where Republican contenders have expressed doubts that humans are causing climate change.

It is doubtful, however, that the critical words of a final Durban declaration will include the words “legally binding” because of U.S. and Chinese resistance, risking a waffly commitment which countries can duck out of again.

The former head of the U.N. climate secretariat Yvo de Boer told Reuters the following might work as a possible text for December 9:

“(Countries commit to sign in 2015) an all-encompassing international agreement in the context of which all countries commit to action which is in accordance with their capabilities and responsibilities.”

Worryingly, that omits a reference to a treaty in language very similar to the 2007 “Bali Action Plan” which led to bitter failure in Copenhagen two years later. (Reporting by Gerard Wynn; editing by Jason Neely)

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