Cancún climate change deal falls flat, Kyoto Protocol on life support

Two weeks of Cancún climate change talks ended Saturday, with a vague deal to help poor countries deal with climate change and the original Kyoto Protocol all but dead.

Israel Leal/AP
Greenpeace activists' hope for a Cancún climate change deal has suffered a defeat as talks ended Saturday, without a firm deal.

The climate change conference in Cancún appears to have sealed the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the only legally binding treaty to combat climate change, and left countries squabbling over the substance and form of a new treaty for the future.

During the two-week meeting in Cancún, which ended Saturday, Japan said it would not commit to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions under the protocol after the first term of obligations for industrialized countries expires at the end of 2012. In effect, that means any emissions reductions by major industrial nations will be voluntary and at their own discretion – a far cry from the enduring, global commitment to reduce global warming agreed to in Kyoto 13 years ago.

“If we here throw the Kyoto Protocol into the garbage dump, we would be responsible for ecocide … indeed, for genocide … as we would be harming humanity as a whole,” Bolivia’s President Evo Morales said at the conference.

IN PICTURES: Cancún climate talks

Presently, climate negotiations are carried out on two “tracks.” The first already has emission-reduction targets from developed countries under the 1997 Protocol, and the second is a long-term plan for combating climate change involving all countries.

Japan complained that the Kyoto Protocol covers only 27 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions and never included the world’s largest emitters – China and the United States.

Other countries such as Russia, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia also wanted a single new treaty that puts binding obligations on all major emitters, but the prospect of that happening any time soon – with a US Congress filled with politicians who argue that forced emissions reductions would do too much economic damage, and China saying economic growth to pull millions of its citizens out of poverty is more important than emissions controls.

“Last week, big industry associations ... opposed [the] extension of the Kyoto Protocol,” says Masako Konishi, senior climate policy adviser of the World Wildlife Fund, Japan. “Unfortunately the Japanese government is listening to the big industry voice rather than a plea from the world.

Kyoto distrust

The Kyoto Protocol is a divisive and emotional issue. A great deal of distrust exists since developing countries suspect that developed countries are trying to abandon their commitments under the treaty.

“The reason for frustration with Kyoto is the United States,” said Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, stressing that the “first body blow” was dealt when the US abandoned the treaty.

Developed countries certainly don’t want to be stuck with steep mitigation cuts, and the European Union has said that the US needs to take cuts comparable to the Kyoto Protocol. The early death of Kyoto is most likely to lead to less ambitious, and less effective, agreements in the future, analysts say.

To be sure, Kyoto was not buried since parties at the conference made a vague agreement to take action so that “there is no gap between the first and second commitment periods.”

To prevent the talks from collapsing, the language had to accommodate the developing countries that are clinging to Kyoto as well as a Japan that wants very little to do with it any longer. Observers described the language as “weak” without a direct call for countries to pledge reductions in the second commitment period.

Going forward, the chance of saving the treaty are slim and the outcome emerging from the second track of negotiations, called the “Long-term Cooperative Action” (LCA), may eventually gobble up the Kyoto Protocol.

“Several countries are attempting to anchor those pledges under the Long-Term Cooperative Action track, which would have the effect of killing the Kyoto Protocol,” says Kate Horner, an analyst for the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth.

That's already happening.

The “Cancún Agreements” which were adopted on Saturday. Pledges folded promised greenhouse-gas reductions outlined in the “Copenhagen Accord” – a political document produced at the 2009 climate conference in Denmark -- into the LCA.

The Copenhagen document, which the US is pushing as the basis of a future legal document, is despised by many developing countries that argue that the burden of reducing emissions is being unfairly placed on their shoulders.


“Anything that is said about a legally binding outcome in the future must make it very clear that that is a legally binding outcome that would apply to at least all the major countries including China, India, Brazil, and so forth,” says Todd Stern, the US special climate envoy.

There is concern, however, that a future treaty on the basis of the Copenhagen Accord could be based on the so-called “pledge and review” system supported by the US, which keeps the implementation of mitigation pledges fairly loose – i.e. they're suggested, not mandatory.

“This would establish a parallel process,” says Ms. Horner of Friends of the Earth. She argues that would lead to rich countries “jumping ship from their existing obligation into a weak and pledge-based system under the LCA."

The first commitment period of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol requires industrialized countries to bring carbon emissions 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. By contrast, the US promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, which works out to 4 percent from 1990 levels.

The US argues that nonbinding pledges are worth working on, since domestic legislation forcing cuts in the US isn't on the horizon. “Let’s not be hung up for year after year after year while we are not able to get that kind of outcome,” Mr. Stern says.

But the clamor for emerging economies like those China and India to take on more legal responsibilities is also coming from fellow developing countries, especially African nations and the small island states, which are the most vulnerable to climate change.

These divisions have isolated India and China in the developing world, even among the so-called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China), which are close allies in climate negotiations.

“There is a myth that the developing countries are one bloc,” said Mr. Ramesh, India's environment minister. He points out that India’s position on climate change would have to “evolve” as the country’s role in the world changes.

IN PICTURES: Cancún climate talks

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