Kyoto Part II: The end of the beginning?

UN negotiations at COP15 in Copenhagen

The focus of many negotiations at COP17 in Durban will be on Kyoto Part 2

Replacing the Kyoto Protocol with a second commitment period is one of the key aims of COP17, which opens in Durban on Monday 28 November.

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 part 1 of his analysis of the Kyoto Protocol, Harald Heubaum, Lecturer in Global Energy and Climate Policy at the School of Oriental and African Studies looked back at the treaty’s troubled birth and recent history.

In part 2 he charts a course for the future, asking if Kyoto is not the answer – then what is?

RTCC: What should negotiators aim for at COP17?

HH: International climate change negotiations still suffer from too much of a focus on legally binding targets. Constantly haggling over targets that are not actually enforceable distracts from more important business.

A meaningful outcome at Durban would be for the process as it is to simply stay on track without new targets. Any future round of negotiations should include progress on at least three fronts: increased technology development and transfer, adaptation, as well as a greater acknowledgement that climate change needs to be simultaneously addressed at multiple levels of political authority.

The road to cutting GHG emissions runs through Beijing and New Delhi, Toronto and Sacramento rather than just through Durban or Bonn. That is to say it is national and subnational governments rather than international conferences that hold the key to success.

RTCC: And yet a bottom-up architecture in which individual countries independently decide by how much to reduce emissions has been criticized as ineffective compared to an inclusive global architecture that sets the targets necessary to hold a rise in global average surface temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius…

HH: What matters is what works. Bottom-up processes have so far produced actual results with renewable portfolio standards, feed-in-tariffs, better fuel efficiency standards, emissions reduction and energy intensity targets and a range of other climate-friendly measures in place at national and subnational levels around the world. The carbon tax just passed by the Gillard government in Australia or the levy on coal recently passed by the Indian Parliament are examples of how domestic policy change can have a real impact on pricing carbon and, eventually, reducing CO2 emissions.

Emissions trading, too, is essentially an example of bottom-up dynamics and certainly of cross-jurisdictional policy learning. The idea did not originate with Kyoto but has its roots in the United States where the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act established a highly successful SO2 trading scheme. The EU and its Member States learned from this experience and early discussions on trading carbon emissions on this side of the Atlantic preceded the Kyoto Protocol. The EU-ETS is used to reach Kyoto targets yet it is independent of the treaty.

RTCC: Should we scrap international efforts in favour of a bottom-up architecture?

HH: We need both. Voicing public and unequivocal support for Kyoto is fine but why should Kyoto II be the only issue on the table? Again, Kyoto failed on emissions targets, credible enforcement mechanisms and inclusiveness. Right now, there is absolutely no indication that a follow-on treaty will fare any better. We should support a continued international process if only to focus attention, keep the issue on the agenda and provide a platform for the exchange of knowledge and best practice. Keeping the Kyoto elements that do work is important but with time running out we now need to use every tool at our disposal – and that includes a bottom-up approach.

RTCC: …which runs the risk of creating a fragmented, patchwork system?

HH: Initially, perhaps but there’s likely to be greater convergence in the long run. The challenge is to link the approaches in an effective way. However, one of the problems of the UN-led process is that it does not sufficiently appreciate the variety of factors enabling and constraining policy-making at national and subnational levels of political authority.

In contrast, organisations such as GLOBE International have early on worked towards strengthening the role of national legislators and parliaments as crucial to achieving real change. GLOBE has done so in the recognition that one size does not fit all and that individual countries may wish to pursue different avenues towards emissions reductions. The end goal (mitigating climate change) is the same.

RTCC: Which elements of Kyoto should remain in place?

HH: Technology development and transfer is one example. COP16 in Cancun made some progress in designing a new Technology Mechanism but deployment needs to be scaled up and diffusion sped up much more quickly than is currently the case. This requires greatly increased investments into research, development and demonstration (RD&D) as well as a solution to persistent intellectual property rights (IPR) problems.

The transition to clean energy technologies is, together with improved energy efficiency, the key to reducing global CO2 emissions from electricity and heat generation as well as transport. If renewables cannot do the job alone then this needs to include technologies such as CCS for natural gas and coal.

RTCC: What happens if we fail to reduce global carbon emissions to sustainable levels?

HH: We need to get real about the effects of unchecked climate change. At least everyone is now talking about adaptation but it still isn’t taken as seriously as it should. Effective mitigation reduces the need to enhance adaptive capacities – the differences between two and six degrees of warming are immense – but it certainly does not make it unnecessary.

There is currently not nearly enough public and private investment in adaptation. As we move deeper into the 21st century this will need to be scaled up considerably. Here again, national governments as well as the UNFCCC are needed to help the private sector overcome investment hurdles.

The UNFCCC’s role will likely change over time, from one focused primarily on mitigation to one that puts adaptation at the heart of its efforts. The Adaptation Fund will need to be beefed up and joined up with other programmes such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund and the UNFCCC’s Special Funds (SCCF, LDCF).

Now is the time to prepare and develop capacities that improve local resilience and help address the many challenges of a future in which global average surface temperatures will likely exceed two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

For more on the UNFCCC’s plans for COP17 watch our exclusive interview with Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres below:

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