At Bali climate change meeting, a hard look at Kyoto

Old climate change standards offer lessons as diplomats consider a successor pact.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Efforts to start two years of talks aimed at crafting a new global pact on climate change enter their most intense phase this week. Ministers from more than 180 countries arrive Wednesday to give final shape to a framework for the talks, which could begin as early as next June.

But even as they look to the future, ministers also will be dealing with the present – giving a final burnish to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol before turning it loose next year. The protocol's first – and perhaps only – enforcement period begins Jan. 1 and runs through 2012.

UN officials here say they are cautiously optimistic that industrial countries as a group will meet – and perhaps beat – the pact's goal for trimming greenhouse-gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide.

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But critics of the 10-year-old agreement have already written it off as a failure, even before it takes full force. To some, Kyoto's projected results are based on accounting tricks and fundamental economic changes that predate the agreement. At issue is how the structure of the original accord will shape future agreements.

Critics and proponents agree that from the climate's perspective, Kyoto's impact will get lost in the weeds. Under the agreement, industrial-country participants must reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of more than 5 percent relative to 1990 levels. But that will have a negligible effect on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Moreover, compared with 1990 levels, carbon-dioxide emissions from industrial countries are at an all-time high, observes Yvo de Boer, who heads the secretariat overseeing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – the 1992 treaty that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol. Rising emissions "would give you the impression that things are going completely in the wrong direction," he acknowledges.

But the protocol offers a range of options for meeting emissions targets. The countries under Kyoto's jurisdiction plan to take full advantage of the range of approaches the pact permits.

Based on national implementation plans, Mr. de Boer says, projections of emissions trends in these countries over the next five years "brings us to the conclusion that the vast majority are in a position to meet their Kyoto targets."

The average masks stark disparities. Some countries are projected to post double-digit growth in emissions during the period while others hit double-digit lows. Moreover, he says, some former Soviet republics "have what you could call windfall targets," since their economies virtually ground to a halt following the collapse of the former Soviet bloc. Their emissions were tiny compared with their assigned targets.

Still, the rest of the group is expected to do well enough that when these former Soviet republics are thrown into the mix, industrial countries could end up trimming their collective emissions by up to 11 percent below 1990 levels, de Boer says.

To some of the agreement's critics, the projected results are based on coincidental economic circumstances from when they were determined in 1990. For instance, they point to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who changed her country's fossil-fuel base from coal to natural gas. And following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Germany reunited with East Germany, which was undergoing a wrenching economic change, dramatically lowering its emissions almost overnight.

Picking 1990 as the base year "is extremely fortunate for the Kyoto Protocol because factors having nothing to do with the protocol are responsible for aggregate emissions trends," notes Roger Pielke Jr., a science-policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Kyoto countries likely would have met their targets even without a protocol in place, he argues.

Whether or not the protocol succeeds under its own modest terms, however, nearly everyone agrees that what comes next will look far different. Just how different will become apparent as negotiators here lay out their framework for talks between now and 2009.

An initial draft of that framework emerged Friday after the first week of talks and it contains elements "that touch all the right bases," says David Doniger, policy director for the National Resources Defense Council's Climate Center.

For instance, its preamble explicitly acknowledges that all industrial countries party to the Framework Convention on Climate Change – which would include the US – need to reduce emissions some 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. And it calls for quantified national emissions objectives by all developed countries under the convention. These would be harmonized with emissions goals for the countries currently covered under the Kyoto Protocol. It also aims to include several key topics for negotiation that developing countries are seeking.

But, Mr. Doniger cautions, the fate of the road map could hinge on a mere handful of possible changes. Thus, over the next few days, negotiators will be parsing phrases and angling to insert or delete language in ways that could lead to a consensus among ministers, which is required to approve the negotiating road map.

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