To Kyoto or not to Kyoto? The question for Durban

[First published in the Carbon Market Europe newsletter by Point Carbon/Reuters]

With less than three weeks to go until the start of the next big U.N. climate conference in Durban, South Africa, speculation is rising as to whether or not the conference will be a car crash like Copenhagen or a modest success like Cancun. The former outcome is indeed a distinct possibility. The latter remains more likely, but the problem is that the term ‘success’ means very different things to different people.

For most developing countries – and in particular the ‘BASIC’ alliance of Brazil, South Africa, India and China – the most important outcome would be an agreement among industrialised nations to commit to a further round of emissions cuts under the Kyoto Protocol. For them a ‘second commitment period’ is the first and only measure of success. Most NGOs concur that Kyoto is sacrosant and must not be allowed to slip into irrelevance once the first commitment period expires at the end of 2012.

Environmentally, however, the truth is that Kyoto is already irrelevant. Russia, Japan and Canada have exited the Kyoto club, leaving only the EU, and perhaps Australia and New Zealand as possible members of a second round. With the US on the sidelines and the rapid rise of India and China, their combined emissions are less than 15 percent of the global total, and the EU’s targets for emissions cuts of 20 percent by 2020 are already legally-binding domestically, so inscribing them in Kyoto makes no conceivable difference.

In a world where the EU must go cap-in-hand to China for a financial bailout (so far refused) and many so-called ‘developing’ countries like Singapore, Gulf States and Korea are much richer than the old ‘developed’ nations, the divisions framed in the 1992 Climate Convention are as antiquated and anachronistic as the Berlin Wall. This is where the real battle in Durban will come, as the Europeans and many others gently insist that another round of Kyoto can only come if serious progress is made towards agreeing a mandate – and a timeline – for an eventual single treaty outcome which includes all major emitting countries in legally-binding, if differently defined, commitments.

At the heart of it all is China. Now the world’s largest emitter – with per capita emissions above those in France and quickly gaining on those of the UK – China was blamed for saying ‘no’ in Copenhagen, by myself and many others who observed its obstructionist stance at close quarters. But since then Beijing has shifted, not just in its positioning in the U.N. climate negotiations but in its own actions at home. With its latest Five Year Plan, the Chinese government is probably putting more money into low-carbon growth than most of the rest of the world combined, with massive investments in renewable and nuclear power, and low-carbon development plans in place for five provinces and eight cities.

In contrast, an alliance of intransigence now seems to connect the US and India. It is obvious that the tortuous domestic politics of the US will make committing to any legal climate treaty impossible for years to come. India, meanwhile, seems stuck in the politics of the Cold War – insisting that only developed countries have any responsibility to act, and that its strange concept of ‘equitable access to sustainable development’ means that poorer countries must now take their turn to pollute. This insistence that only pollution is the way out of poverty reflects the Indian government’s peculiar slowness in recognising the growth opportunities of clean technologies. Strange bedfellows perhaps, but US-India ‘axis of inaction’ is certainly one to watch in Durban.

For small island states and others whose very survival is at stake, timing is everything. Global emissions must peak around 2015 for temperature rise to be constrained to below two degrees – and suggestions by the Americans and Indians that a global treaty can be kicked into the long grass of post-2020 are very bad news indeed. For them and the Europeans success in Durban will be measured in progress towards that single treaty outcome – and Kyoto’s only remaining true value is as a political sop to move the major emitters in the emerging economies towards this much more important goal.

© Mark Lynas
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