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.


  1. Barry Woods

    Whilst this is no doubt correct:

    “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”

    The amount of China’s fossil fuel derived emissions (coal based) is projected togo ever higher in the next few decades….

    Lot’s of greens this is not true..

    How anything can replace Kyoto, or a second phase of Kyoto, can happen

  2. Barry Woods

    oops.. post by accident..

    When EU-17 or EU 27 average per capita are less than China’s, which is projected in next few years (or less) it will be impossible to persuade the West to do anything.

    ie China ahead of France, same as Italy now. Next year en par with Germany and UK..

    ie Fred Pearce:

    “While many Western economies stall, many developing economies are growing fast. And the continuing heavy dependence of many of them on coal is pushing up the global economy’s reliance on the dirtiest fuel.

    China may be the world’s largest producer of wind turbines and solar panels, but its coal consumption has doubled in the past eight years. In 2010, an amazing 48 percent of all the coal burned in the world was burned in China. The country’s roads are clogged with coal trucks headed from mines to power stations. Earlier this month, there was a 40-mile traffic backup out of the major coal-mining region in Shaanxi province. Trucks were taking a week to get down the main highway, which carries 160 million tons of coal a year. Last year, 10,000 vehicles were stuck for days on another coal road, out of Inner Mongolia.

    Meanwhile, India’s coal consumption has doubled in 12 years. It is expected to have three times as many coal-burning power stations by the end of the decade. India, like China, has huge coal reserves of its own”

  3. Bob Koss

    I wouldn’t count on China bailing out the EU. Contrary to the China image seen by the West it looks like China’s economy might also be swirling the bowl.

    The embedded Related Article link has more info.


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