COP17: Why the ‘Kyoto or bust’ positions must change

As ministers arrive in Durban for the all-important second week of COP17, the vexed issue of whether a Kyoto Protocol second commitment period (KP2) will ever see the light of day is no closer to being resolved. This matters a great deal, though not for the climate – any KP2 will make no discernible difference either to carbon emissions or global warming. However, its great symbolic power means that Kyoto may now destroy as much as it ever achieved unless the deadlock can be broken. The moment of truth has been put off for many years. It cannot simply be postponed again.

Of all the many steadfastly-held illogical positions maintained by the different parties at COP17, that of the G77+China on Kyoto – that there can be no progress anywhere in the negotiations until a KP2 is agreed – is surely one of the most insupportable. (It should be said that many G77 members disagree quietly with this stance, but fail to press their case within the group.) It is universally understood that even in the best-case scenario, with the entire EU, Switzerland, Australia, Norway and New Zealand all signing on the KP2 dotted line, a new round of the 1997 treaty would cover a dwindling 15% or less of global emissions. Moreover, the targets that would be inscribed already exist, and in the EU’s case are already enshrined in binding Europe-wide legislation. So inscribing them in Kyoto will make no difference, and could even raise emissions if the loopholes on land-use change and eastern European ‘hot air’ are not closed.

So why the Kyoto big deal, given that we are all supposed to be tackling climate change in order to hold world temperatures below two degrees, any reasonable chance of which depends on global emissions peaking between 2015-2020? Why do any countries bother to insist that Kyoto is important to their survival? Because this is politics, and Kyoto enshrines in treaty language the principle – originally inscribed in the 1992 Framework Convention – that only industrialised countries need take on binding commitments, in recognition of their higher capacity to act and their historical responsibility for the cumulative emissions which are already causing global warming. There is justice in this of course, but times have moved on and the developing world – non-Annex 1 parties, as the Convention terms them – are now responsible for a rapidly-increasing majority of global carbon emissions.

Indeed, the great weakness of the climate change regime is that it is frozen in time, with the developed-developing boundaries of the world as it stood in 1992 etched in treaty language as if in eternal stone. In fact, with the ‘rich’ countries today mired in recession and crying out to the ‘poor’ countries (read China) for capital bailouts, and as many as 50 developing countries now richer than the poorest Annex 1 parties, the inflexibility of this system threatens to bring the entire regime into disrepute. Everyone knows the world has changed, not least the voters who would be asked to ratify any KP2 within Europe and elsewhere (and likely wouldn’t). With next year’s COP being held in Qatar, a prodigiously wealthy and high-emitting ‘developing’ country, the absurdity of this hard-and-fast boundary will become even more obvious.

What the Convention, and Kyoto, lacked, was a graduation system, where countries might be required to join Annex 1 upon the achievement of a certain level of emissions and/or per-capita GDP. This harmed the interests of smaller and more vulnerable developing countries as much as the old industrialised world – it really is absurd to ask Qatar or Singapore to take on the same type of targets as Tuvalu or Ethiopia, but quite reasonable to expect them to take similar targets to the US or Australia. The lack of any differentiation on mitigation within the non-Annex 1 parties – although it has emerged in financing, reporting and capacity-building issues – is an issue that is crying out to be addressed. The hallowed Convention principle of action based on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ surely cries out for this more than anything.

Kyoto’s singular importance to the big emitters in the developing world is that it maintains the Annex 1/non-Annex 1 ‘firewall’ of mitigation differentiation perhaps for as long as another decade. That so few activists, NGOs and negotiators ever admit this is bemusing – it is sort of like the truth that dare not speak its name. Certainly for a developing country leader to say this (as President Nasheed of the Maldives has, on numerous occasions) is seen as heresy by the G77 old guard. But as Richard Black wrote on the BBC News site a few days ago, these dividing lines are at last beginning to blur. How far they continue to do so, and how much flexibility this inspires in the opposing camps, is crucial to the eventual outcome of Durban.

Of course, all the way back since Bali in 2007, Kyoto has not been the only game in town. Bali launched the ‘LCA track’ (standing for Long-term Co-operative Action) under the Convention to complement the ‘KP track’, and has been the main theatre of action ever since. Part of the point of this was to reopen the door to eventual US participation in a new mitigation arrangement. But the LCA negotiations also opened up significant progress in important areas like the Green Climate Fund, REDD+ to tackle tropical deforestation, and technology transfer. All these areas could make good progress at Durban, and begin to make a real difference in the world – as long as the KP track impasse does not block them, as it currently threatens to do. That is what all these frequent insistences of ‘balance’ mean – that one track cannot be allowed to progress without the other.

Just as importantly, the LCA track opened the door to non-Annex 1 voluntary mitigation, the so-called NAMAs (nationally-appropriate mitigation actions). So far close to 50 developing countries have brought forward NAMAs, including highly-ambitious carbon neutral plans for several of them, and according to analysts this combined effort now puts more tonnes of carbon on the table than from the entirety of Annex 1 put together. That is great news, of course – but these mitigation actions will still one day have to be translated into commitments and combined into a global climate treaty for them to be properly believable: hence the critically-important ‘legal options’ agenda item in the LCA negotiations.

The problem is that the current blocked two-track impasse suits the big emitters just fine – and there is good reason to believe that several of them are working quietly to maintain it. The US negotiators know full well that they have no mandate to even begin, let alone conclude, treaty-style negotiations – not least because the Senate would never ratify  such a treaty. Hence lead negotiator Jonathan Pershing’s frequent references to anything significant having to be “post-2020” for the US to consider taking part. India, for its part, seems to be moving backwards, with Jairam Ramesh’s brief ‘glasnost’ period last year now snuffed out by his removal, and a new hardline stance which insists that the firewall must be maintained indefinitely for the sake of ‘equity’, whatever that means. The US and India may appear to be polar opposites, but each gives the other convenient diplomatic cover: they may even be working together behind the scenes.

The EU has made a sensible proposal, as it often does, containing the outlines of a compromise – some kind of ‘mandate’ for a 2015 legal outcome in the LCA track as a precondition for whatever can be cobbled together for a face-saving second (and indisputably final) commitment period of Kyoto. AOSIS, trying to make progress also, has proposed a two-protocol approach to maintain the firewall but also to bring a strong global legal regime out of the LCA track too (basically the Kyoto targets would be inscribed twice). Others have floated the idea of bringing the big emerging country emitters formally into Kyoto, perhaps in an Annex C, though this leaves the question of what to do about the US unresolved. (The implicit challenge being: if you love Kyoto so much, come and join it.)

Whether any of these proposals start to gain serious traction in the next week will depend on one key player in particular – China. In Copenhagen, China mostly said ‘no’. In Cancun, stung by criticism, it made more effort to secure compromise – and the result was plaudits, several important COP decisions, and lots of grateful standing ovations for the Mexican COP presidency. What it chooses to do at Durban in the next few days will be more important than any other factor. China, unlike the US, has space to move (and can move the whole G77 along with it), and incentives for doing so – it is already the clean-tech workshop of the world, and will benefit hugely from any massive international mitigation effort leveraging trillions in capital investments for clean energy infrastructure. China’s lead delegate Xie Zhenhua has already signalled flexibility in the important area of legal form, if not on Kyoto specifically.

Whether this glimmer of hope can become anything more solid and meaningful in time for Friday night’s closing COP plenary is what will make the difference between success and failure in Durban. A Kyoto car crash can still be avoided, but at this stage there is little sign of the outlines of any emerging compromise. Instead, the logic of ‘mutually assured destruction’ that the Kyoto impasse perpetuates is still the default position for most parties, as they stick to their usual group battle lines. The Cartagena Dialogue is once again proving a fruitful way to develop ideas behind the scenes, but it is not a formal group and will not be able to ask parties to step outside their traditional groups – and progressive Dialogue participants are heavily outnumbered in the G77 and other formal negotiating groups.

In summary: this need not end badly. But if nothing has changed by Thursday night in terms of signals of flexibility and compromise, expect the worst. Even the worst, however, is not necessarily the end. It is a mistake to see any single COP as a make-or-break event, however much it might feel so at the time. Perhaps the worst outcome of continued Kyoto deadlock is not that the UNFCCC process shatters in a dramatic big bang, but that it continues to slip gradually into irrelevance. And that is a prospect that anyone who cares about multilateralism should do everything they can to avoid.


  1. Aubrey Meyer

    Words words words. The LDC draft mandate reported by Richard Black of the BBC sates: “The negotiations shall also be guided by the fact that in order to achieve the long term goal, global emissions should peak by no later than 2015 and will need to be reduced by at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050.” That scenario calculates out like this: –

  2. Barry Woods

    From the above:
    “China’s lead delegate Xie Zhenhua has already signalled flexibility in the important area of legal form, if not on Kyoto specifically.”

    What does he really think 😉 ?

    “China’s most senior negotiator on climate change said today he was keeping an open mind on whether global warming was man-made or the result of natural cycles. Xie Zhenhua said there was no doubt that warming was taking place, but more and better scientific research was needed to establish the causes.

    Xie’s comments caused consternation at the end of the post-meeting press conference, with his host, the Indian environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, attempting to play down any suggestions of dissent over the science of climate change.


    Personally, I see no reason to think that China will EVER sign or do anything, that will reduce their annual emmissions growth

  3. Karl-Friedrich Lenz

    In the WTO negotiations (Doha round) there is no progress either. The answer the EU has adopted 2006 was to go ahead with more bilateral trade deals, like the Free Trade Agreement with Korea that went into effect in July.

    The same strategy would be a good idea if the multinational track shows no progress. Start with a strong agreement between Japan and the EU, who are negotiating a Free Trade Agreement right now anyway.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *