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Kyoto Protocol on life support: will someone pull the plug already?

Kyoto Protocol on life support: will someone pull the plug already?

There’s been a strange and slightly awkward atmosphere around the Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre in Durban this past week.

Close relatives of the Kyoto Protocol have gathered around its deathbed waiting for what seems like its inevitable passing. Old feuds have erupted again. Some are in denial. Squabbles are breaking out over arrangements for disposition of the estate and care of the dependents. Shadows are deepening around eyes, and the priests are preparing to administer last rites. The kind thing, surely, would be to put it out of its misery.

An interchange last week at the Japanese delegation’s daily press briefing between a Spanish journalist and Masahiko Horie, Japan’s ambassador for global environmental affairs, was revealing of the terminal nature of the Protocol’s malaise. Japan announced last year, and has confirmed again in Durban, that it won’t agree to a second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. Canada is taking a similar line. NGOs and developing countries are incensed.

The English on both sides wasn’t perfect, but the meaning was plain. Paraphrased, it went something like this:

Q: I’m just wondering…how can Japan be asking other countries to be taking on further binding commitments to reduce emissions when it won’t first continue to commit to binding commitments itself?

A: The Protocol only binds countries responsible for 26 percent of global emissions. We think it’s important that all major countries join. China is the largest emitter of GHGs and the USA is the second largest. So this is why we are appealing for all to join.

Q: But if you are asking them to do what you used to do, why are you stopping doing what you were doing? You’ve been doing it very well, for a very long time. But instead of saying “do what I am doing”, you are saying “I’m going to stop doing what I’m doing in order to force you to do it.”

A: We’re proposing a single comprehensive international framework. It has to be something that all the major economies and as many countries as possible join. Under that kind of agreement the total emissions reductions will be large enough to achieve the goal.

The USA’s position is that it is not part of the Kyoto Protocol, so it will just stay clear of that process, thanks. But in any event, the system of voluntary pledges initiated in Copenhagen in 2009 and confirmed in Cancun in 2010 will be fine, for the time being at least. As for a future agreement after 2020, “the only way it could be effective and garner broad support is if it fully applies to all significant countries”.


China and the other ‘BASIC’ group countries (Brazil, South Africa, India) continue to press for the distinction in international climate rules between developed countries and developing countries. They say the rich have an obligation to accept binding reductions and help developing countries to improve living standards – something that would happen if Kyoto was ratified (by the USA) and extended (by the rest of the rich Kyoto parties).

As Brett and Jermaine say, it’s a chicken and eggy one.

It’s not completely doom and gloom. Officials seem to have made good progress on technical arrangements for catalysing technology transfers, access to finance for climate mitigation and adaptation projects for developing countries. This stuff will be important for pre-, during and post-illness care. But the global community appears stumped on how to stop getting sick in the first place.

The first week of negotiations have been mainly driven by diplomats and officials. Ministers (including New Zealand’s Tim Groser) are on their way for the final week.

A miracle recovery for the Protocol can't be ruled out. But I'd be surprised if there weren't a few black suits in the checked-in luggage.