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"We don’t want South Africa to be the death of Kyoto Protocol," Minister of Environment, Edwina Molewa said recently, referring to the outcomes aspired to by the incoming South African COP17 Presidency from 28 November to 9 December 2011. But what are the real chances of life for the Kyoto and what are the stakes if we lose it?
Most countries are calling for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, as the first one ends in 2012. The Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in 2005, is the only legally binding agreement for greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It commits 38 developed nations from 2008-2012 to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 % below 1990 levels. The US never ratified Kyoto arguing that it would harm its domestic economy. Emerging economies also argued that their first priority is to develop, which requires higher energy use. Countries led by the United States, Canada, Russia and Japan now wish to see the demise of Kyoto and introduce a ‘pledge and review’ system instead of Kyoto’s system of binding targets. The resulting effect of killing Kyoto would be consolidate two separate tracks of the negotiation process, which was agreed to at the COP13, Bali in 2007, one with binding targets, the other with comparable national efforts and a long-term vision.
The main motivation for killing Kyoto is that developed countries want to lower their level of commitments or avoid taking responsibility for committing to international binding emission reduction commitments altogether. Initially it seemed that the main motivation for this position by some developed countries was to force advanced developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa to also take on internationally binding obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Lim Li Lin of Third World Network argues that, “If the Kyoto Protocol is abandoned and a single new agreement negotiated, this will mean risking that the new international climate change treaty may take many years to enter into force or may never enter into force, if insufficient countries ratify it. The negotiations will be more complicated and controversial, and could also likely take a very long time. This is something that the planet and the poor cannot afford.”
‘Pledge and review’ is seen as an attempt to deregulate the international system of climate pollution controls. Civil society commentators have argued that the system being proposed will mean that there is no check of whether emission reductions are in line with science and no way to make sure they are actually followed. They also view it as a dangerous backtracking on promises made by three consecutive US Presidencies to join the international system of binding commitments, and will ensure “atmospheric anarchy” at the moment when the world needs fair global governance of carbon pollution.” Martin Khor of the South Centre also predicts that the deregulated system will disincentivize developing countries, "when they see those who are supposed to lead the process, falter instead." Currently, of the pledges, 65% of those reductions could happen in countries in the global South and just 35% in rich countries, despite the fact that 75% of all historical emissions have come from developed countries.
Kyoto is meant to be a legally binding agreement, with only the first commitment period ending in 2012. Thereafter subsequent commitment periods enter into force by 2013, ensuring there is no gap between the two commitment periods. The negotiations are really meant to be about amending Kyoto to ensure stricter, more ambitious targets in line with science. However, the discussion has now turned to developing a ‘political’, instead of a ‘legal’ commitment. Not only will this violate the legal agreement, the consequences of which mean a greater lack of trust and will to deal effectively with climate change, but it also does not bode well for the scientific gap in the pledges.
There is also need for a more nuanced debate which includes seriously considering the failings of Kyoto. The targets set by Kyoto of 5.2% reductions from 1990 levels were far below what science required at the time of 50%-70% reductions from the same baseline. It has partly given rise to a situation in which emissions are actually increasing around the world. In fact, a recent report by the Stockholm Environment Institute reveals that current rules of accounting, which decide what is an emission and what is not, could result in climate pollution from industrialized countries actually increasing by 2020 - this is very creative accounting and will lead to a huge breach of trust. This may be due to the fact that although Kyoto set targets it also created loopholes to avoid meeting those targets.
The cornerstone of Kyoto is carbon trading, a flexible, market-baesd system of pollution trading which has had the effect of shifting emissions around instead of reducing it. Worse still is the offsetting component of Kyoto, in which so-called emission reducing projects are implemented in Southern countries, which shift the burden of emissions reductions from North to South. Offsetting has been accused of lacking in environmental integrity and leads to socially unjust outcomes. Furthermore, many of Kyoto’s meager commitments have not been met by developed countries and moreover, there is no compliance mechanism to ensure that there are sanctions against this. In essence, the debate on just the legal form of a new treaty may detract from the real issues of who should be taking responsibility for emission reductions and how best to make sure that these reductions are committed to. Rather, the debates focus on states shying away from their responsibilities by the increaased use of market mechanisms.
Former UN climate boss Yvo De Boer does not believe that the US would ever agree to become a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol and take on legally binding emission reduction targets. “My sense is that unless negotiators manage to resolve the future, or non-future, of the Kyoto Protocol at Durban, there won`t be progress on the other issues [within the UNFCCC negotiations],” he said. Others believe that the European Union will throw Kyoto a lifeline in Durban. The EU, however, says that it only accounts for just 11 per cent of world greenhouse gases so will need ample support for this effort. "I wonder how wise it is to criticise the party that without comparison delivers the most, instead of trying to help us put pressure on all the big players who do not commit," European Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said. The best bet, Molewa finally concedes is to take key elements of the Protocol and build it into a single new agreement, with a comprehensive united approach. The key issue will be whether the positive or flawed elements of Kyoto will be retained.
The ISS Today COP17 Series reviews key issues on the climate change negotiations ahead of the Conference of Parties 17th session in Durban, South Africa from 28 November – 9 December. This article is the second in the series.
Written by Trusha Reddy, Senior Researcher, Corruption and Governance Programme, ISS Cape Town Office