Uncertainty hinders Kyoto successor

Industrialised countries insist that developing countries must be included in any new global climate change protocol Reuters

With no agreement on a new time frame, a gap is looming after the end of the first commitment period (2008-2012) to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

This content was published on June 24, 2011 - 14:16
Pierre-François Besson,

Kyoto risks collapse due to lack of support beyond 2012 from rich nations, which are meant to take the lead in fighting climate change.

"This process is dead in the water," said Yvo de Boer, the former head of the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat.

"It's not going anywhere," he said during the United Nations June 6-17 talks in Bonn, which yet again failed to resolve disputes between rich and poor about extending the Kyoto Protocol.

On one side Japan, Russia and Canada say they will not sign up for deeper cuts in emissions under Kyoto beyond 2012, arguing that a global deal, backed by all big emitters including China and India, is a fair next step.

But developing nations say Kyoto is a test of developed countries' past promises to lead in slowing global warming, which is set to cause more heat waves, droughts, floods and rising sea levels that are likely to hit the poorest hardest.

Another preparatory meeting is expected to be scheduled before the next big Conference of Parties (COP) meeting in Durban, South Africa five months away.

Added to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol legally obliges a minority of states, known as Annex I countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Annex I countries agreed to reduce their collective greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent from the 1990 level. One year before the end of the first commitment period these states have failed to deliver, some falling far short of their reduction target.

The Annex I countries were deemed “industrialised” when Kyoto was initially adopted in 1997. However, they produce a small share of the global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Jorge E. Viñuales, chair of international environmental law at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

“At the time the industrialisation of China had not been foreseen and the vision of the future was still marked by the Cold War,” Viñuales said. “Kyoto does not tie the United States [which has signed but not ratified] or China or the emerging economies who produce most of the emissions.”

Kyoto’s value

“The actual contribution of Kyoto to the reduction of emissions is very limited. The value of the protocol is in having been a first experience in how to make a treaty limiting emissions,” said Viñuales.

Judged strictly on its climate impact, Kyoto performs poorly. The emissions reductions to which the states are committed are minimal, according to Viñuales.

“And even if we arrived at zero emission, that would not be enough. The average temperature will increase anyway by two degrees or more by the end of the century. The stock of greenhouse gases in the troposphere is already too high. Which is why geo-engineering is so important [reforestation, injection of particules into the atmosphere etc].”

Kyoto does have some merit both as a negotiation instrument and for the impetus it creates. Its very existence has encouraged the private sector to be more efficient and it can be used by governments to justify unpopular decisions.

The Protocol is also a diplomatic instrument. China and the emerging economies support it to push the industrialised countries to commit before asking the same effort of them. And Canada and the European Union (with Switzerland) refuse to be tied and to unilaterally reduce their competitiveness if the big emitters do not commit. That largely explains the current impasse.

No clear signal

The legal void expected after 2012 will mean the absence of a clear signal allowing the business world to make good energy and industrial investment choices.

For Viñuales this absence of international commitment will spur companies to “deploy every possible lobbying effort to limit as much as possible the weight of the national regulation on emission reduction”.

Annex I countries whose emissions exceed 1990 levels by the end of next year will in theory breach their commitments. But Kyoto has built-in flexibility mechanisms. The best known is the trading of emission rights. It allows countries to buy emission credits from countries which emit less than their quotas.

This mechanism – like other instruments set up by the protocol – will survive thanks to the well-established European trading system, Viñuales predicts. The Geneva professor already envisages three post-Kyoto scenarios without Kyoto II in place.

Three scenarios

“The first, quite likely, scenario is a return to the framework convention, where the non-binding obligations would be set by the COP. That would give a substantial, non-obligatory framework, which would send a strong, international and largely harmonised signal to the private sector.”

Another possibility would be to go down the human rights route, in other words employing the mechanisms and instruments in this domain to obtain damages and compensation from the big emitters. This route is currently being explored by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, according to Viñuales.

The third scenario is that of atomisation: “A mosaic of national regulations without coordination of common obligations”. Viñuales can also easily imagine a combination of the three. The Durban meeting could make things clearer.

Kyoto Protocol

Kyoto, a 178-nation accord, is a 1997 protocol to the 1992 UN climate treaty that requires 37 industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.

The Swiss parliament ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in 2003. Switzerland undertook to reduce its CO2 emissions to 10% less than 1990 levels by 2010.

The government foresees raising the target to at least a 20% cut in emissions by 2020, partly through a CO2 tax, an emissions trading system and compensation measures outside Switzerland.

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