Kyoto: Does the Protocol have a future?

Emissions from a chemical factory in the USA

Heavy industry emissions have been targeted under the Kyoto Protocol

Replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a second commitment period is one of the key aims of COP17 in Durban.

Since coming into force in 2005 it has provided the foundation for global climate talks, but next year its remit expires.

Opinion is divided over whether we need a second commitment period. The treaty has been derided as ineffective, the USA’s refusal to take part has hurt its credibility, while major emitters like India and China are not subject to legally binding targets.

And yet it is the only global treaty we have, and the only agreement that is legally binding.

In the first of a two-part series, Harald Heubaum, Lecturer in Global Energy and Climate Policy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, discusses a treaty that polarises opinion like few others.

RTCC: 14 years after negotiations in Japan, six years after it came into effect, and three years since the first commitment period started – where does the Kyoto Protocol stand today?

HH: At its inception in 1997, proponents hailed the Kyoto Protocol as a breakthrough in global climate protection. It set emissions reductions targets for a number of industrialised countries and created a mechanism that was supposed to provide the basis for further measures to be put in place at a later stage.

The Protocol’s core commitments expire at the end of the compliance period next year. Unfortunately, Kyoto will not achieve what it originally set out to do: to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below the 1990 baseline and in effect stabilize them at a level that prevents dangerous interference with the Earth’s climate.

Some of the parties to the Protocol that were given reduction targets, such as Canada, have actually increased their emissions since 1998. Currently, there is no post-2012 agreement in place to tackle rising global emissions and help the world avoid the worst effects of climate change.

RTCC: Critics point to the fact that the two biggest emitters – China and the United States – are not subject to binding limits under Kyoto, and that even if everyone hit their targets, it would still not be enough to curb global warming….so has Kyoto achieved anything of note?

HH: The fact that Kyoto entered into force in 2005 was in itself a big achievement even if global targets will not be met at the end of 2012. It is easy to deride the treaty for its apparent failure and forget that it was only ever going to be a first step in a long and difficult policy process.

However, after many years of essentially fruitless negotiations set against the backdrop of continuously rising emissions it is now clear that the process as originally conceived is not working any longer and that change is urgently needed.

RTCC: Does that on its own explain why there is such a mass of negative opinion towards the Protocol?

HH: One of the biggest problems is that Kyoto is discredited as a brand. It’s a top-down treaty with no teeth that doesn’t include some of the worst polluters. Its targets have been ignored by some of the countries that committed themselves to meaningful emissions reductions.

As long as there is no credible, effective enforcement mechanism, the ambitions of those pushing for big, all-encompassing global treaties will not be met in Durban or at any of the other Conferences of the Parties (COPs), including the preparatory meetings, held every year.

This type of summit diplomacy has produced some results in the past but it obviously isn’t getting us any closer to actually reducing global GHGs and decoupling carbon emissions from economic growth.

RTCC: Over the last few years a number of proposals to strengthen Kyoto and fill remaining gaps, among them the UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) programme, have been developed by governments, organisations and groups of experts. Given that further puzzle pieces are now in place, can Kyoto II be made to work?

HH: It is highly unlikely that a follow-on treaty will produce the results that Kyoto has so far failed to produce. Take the REDD+ example: The programme was conceived to remedy the Kyoto Protocol’s inability to effectively address the role of deforestation, forest conservation and sustainable forest management and help pave the way for Kyoto II.

The idea behind REDD+, to put a financial value on forest lands that store carbon and thus incentivise avoided deforestation and reforestation in developing countries, has rightly received strong support. We need to put a realistic price on carbon and this is one step towards that goal.

However, in the grand scheme of things, REDD+ plays only a small part. Enhancing forest carbon stocks and avoiding deforestation here and there means fewer emissions generated through land use change. That’s good. But global emissions are now growing at a faster pace than ever before  and much of that growth is from energy use.

We cannot even plant new trees fast enough to store all this additional CO2. The problem at the heart of the process is not so much the lack of programmes and instruments but the lack of effective enforcement and the politics being played out amongst the members of the UNFCCC. Sadly, this will not get resolved anytime soon.

RTCC: The Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, has recently offered a positive assessment of COP17’s chances at producing a meaningful negotiated outcome. Isn’t this kind of criticism undermining efforts to secure a political result in South Africa?

HH: I appreciate that proponents of a deal at Durban will not want to bury the summit’s chances before it has even begun. Unfortunately, however, there is no desire from all sides to achieve a final political decision right now. The differences are just too stark and the political stakes too high.

The United States is gearing up for presidential and congressional elections in November next year and President Obama will not want to hand his eventual Republican challenger an argument on a silver platter by being too progressive in Durban. Japan, Russia and Canada have already stated that they will not participate in a second commitment period if there are no binding targets for other major economies, including the US. China and India, meanwhile, are generally opposed to far-reaching, legally binding cuts imposed upon them.

Those hoping for a better playing field post-2012 will be disappointed, too. By all accounts, the US Senate – needed to ratify any international treaty the US government signs up to – will be even more narrowly divided from January 2013 and to most Republicans and coal-state Democrats Kyoto is a red rag. This thing just isn’t going to fly. Even if there was enough support for an international agreement in 2012, 2013 or even 2014, it would likely be a reflection of the lowest common denominator and that’s not good enough. As the IEA has made clear, we are hurtling towards irreversible climate change if nothing is done soon.

RTCC: The EU has been generally supportive of a legally binding framework to take the Kyoto Protocol’s place post-2012, despite Connie Hedegaard’s comments last week. Many seem to be holding out hope that majority support can be built for an updated Protocol. Why is the EU still enthusiastic?

HH: It is understandable that the EU has been clinging to the Protocol and the process it prescribes. There are two principal reasons for this. First, the EU lobbied hard for Kyoto to come into effect in the first place and the domestic efforts of its Member States, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom, mean that the EU-15 seems to be the only Annex I party to have achieved genuine and significant emissions reductions.

However, the positive figures conceal a somewhat bigger carbon footprint. This is because a lot of the goods consumed in the EU-15 today aren’t actually produced here but in poorer countries in Eastern Europe and the Global South in more energy-intensive processes. Over time, European companies have outsourced some of their production and resultant emissions. That’s nothing new. But to keep counting GHG emissions based on domestic production instead of consumption completely ignores the globalised nature of production and the interconnectedness of world economies.

The second reason is that Kyoto is the only international regime in place today that has the basic elements necessary to reduce global GHG emissions. This includes financing and technology transfer mechanisms. As has been noted elsewhere, there is indeed no time left to start from scratch and negotiate an entirely new outcome.

Kyoto is also the one treaty most developing and emerging countries would like to see renewed as it places the responsibility for emissions cuts squarely on the shoulders of the affluent, industrialised North. European negotiators have long been more amenable to these countries’ demands, although Connie Hedegaard’s surprising comments seemed to suggest this view may now be changing.

In the end, however, those that support a single top-down, legally binding (on paper) yet unenforceable (in reality) approach as the only game in town need to convincingly explain why they think the many problems that have marred the Kyoto process since the late 1990s will not stand in the way of truly effective climate change governance post 2012/13.

RTCC: What do you think about the Kyoto Protocol? Should it be scrapped or is it the only hope we have? Join the debate on our Facebook site.

On Thursday we’ll feature the second part of our Kyoto analysis with Harald Heubaum, where he suggests a way in which the UN-sponsored climate talks can move forward.

Read more on: Climate Politics | COP17 | | | |