Climate: Why the Cancun Summit Has Been All About Kyoto So Far

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I’m not down in sunny, congested Cancun yet—I’ll be arriving next week for what’s become an annual holiday season trip to the U.N. climate summit. (At least this year won’t be as cold as Copenhagen, though I’ve heard that the food is just as bad.) I’ve already written a preview of the major issues on the table at the summit, which began on November 29 and runs until the end of next week.

Negotiations at these summits never really get going until the end, and sometimes not until the very end, but the talks are already beginning to shape up. And it looks like one of the major obstacles to moving forward on climate action is a treaty that was signed 13 years ago. The Kyoto Protocol was either the first step towards creating a meaningful global climate regime, or it was the original sin that has made the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) increasingly ineffective. Kyoto divided the nations of the world into two parts—the rich countries that were legally bound to reduce greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2012, and the developing nations that could participate in emissions reductions—through the emerging global carbon market—but weren’t required to do anything. That division is part of the reason that the U.S.—even under then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore—signed the Kyoto Protocol but never ratified it, making it one of the few nations around the world that failed to do so. And that division has overshadowed the UN climate talks, and U.S. participation in them, ever since. Under former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama, the U.S. has opposed signing onto any deal that would keep the Kyoto structure in place, while developing nations (including India and China) want to keep Kyoto as it is.

One problem among many on the climate circuit, and one that’s usually been overlooked over the past few years. But the bill is coming due. The first commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012, the point by which the developed nations are supposed to have reducing their greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels. The question now is what comes next? Should countries negotiate a new post-2012 commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol, essentially extending it? (A path that would leave out the two top emitters in the world, China and the U.S., not to mention other big emitters like India and Brazil.) Or scrap it altogether and start with something new—perhaps a beefed-up version of the Copenhagen Accord, which is Washington’s preferred path? Or something else altogether?

The debate is getting nastier. Earlier this week usually sedate Japan surprised the Cancun delegates by saying bluntly that it would not support an extension of the Kyoto Protocol and that it would instead work towards a new agreement. As Kuni Shimada, a special adviser to Japan’s Environment Ministry, told Bloomberg:

Without the active participation of the two biggest emitters, namely China and the United States, it’s not a global effort. Whatever happens, under any kind of conditions we do not accept a second commitment period.

Japan’s not the only Kyoto signatory to oppose extending the pact—Russia is against it as well, as is Canada, which has blown past its supposedly binding Kyoto targets as the country has expanded its oil industry. But the fact that Japan—which took on onerous emissions limits back in 1997 in an effort to get the Kyoto Protocol passed—would speak so frankly shook the summit:

“It was really a slap in the face because all of the developing countries are totally united to the fact that the Kyoto Protocol must continue,” Lim Li Lin of the Third World Network, a nonprofit based in Malaysia, told SolveClimate News.

Meanwhile there’s no evidence that the major nations like China or India—who might be able to sway other, smaller developing countries—have much interest in shifting away from Kyoto. India earned some praise earlier this week when its environment minister Jairam Ramesh offered a proposal to break through the deadlocks around the Copenhagen Accord. (Right, the other deadlock—though the Copenhagen Accord signed in last year’s summit commits countries to carry out their own climate actions, there’s been a long-standing disagreement between the U.S. and China on what that means. The U.S. insists national actions need to be measurable, reportable and verifiable—MRV in U.N. speak—while China isn’t too happy with that degree of transparency.) Ramesh suggested that countries—both developed and developing—would report their own national climate actions to the U.N., which would be able to review and assess them. There would be no penalty for failure—this wouldn’t be a binding treaty—but it would at least be (relatively) transparent.

A pretty good idea, especially this early in the negotiations. But it came with a catch—the framework Ramesh was suggesting would only work if the U.S. were to promise to cut carbon emissions further and if there was a firm commitment for a second Kyoto period. Neither is going to happen, and Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations says why:

So let’s be clear about what’s going on. A balanced political deal was made at Copenhagen. Many countries that made that deal are now insisting that they’ll only follow through on their side of the bargain if something deliberately excluded from the original deal – new Kyoto commitments – happens. That’s wrong.

Which brings us, as we often find ourselves to be on climate politics, back to square one. Now there’s a lot more that is going on at Cancun besides argument over the Copenhagen Accord or the Kyoto Protocol. There will be talks to hammer out climate financing for developing nations, and talks to further efforts to reduce deforestation. In a perfect world, the sort of issues that have broader support—like avoided deforestation—could be moved ahead even if the larger questions of a climate deal remain unsettled. But that doesn’t seem to be happening, in part because of the U.S., as Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones reports:

US negotiator Jonathan Pershing emphasized in remarks to reporters on Tuesday that the US position believes Cancun should produce a “balanced package.” “There is no reason we cannot get full, robust, operational decisions in all these area,” he said.

But he affirmed the US’s desire to move everything at once: “The package is not disentangled, the package is collective. We will not pull out pieces separately and say the other pieces can wait.”

That means the entire process could only progress as far as the most difficult issue. “What they’re saying is that they are not going to make progress on one issue like a global climate fund without seeing the same level of commitment in other areas,” says Heather Coleman, senior policy adviser for Oxfam America. “Progress on one is progress on everything.”

The U.S. position has fueled speculation could see a standoff between America and the developing world—with Washington even walking out if its demands aren’t met. I have a hard time imagining that—that’s not an image the Obama Administration would like to see. But it does seem like a recipe for disappointment.