Tuesday, 29 November 2011

UN Climate Conference: Game over for Kyoto?

International commitments for GHG emission reductions pass off with 2012. Debates at this week's UN Climate Change Conference in Durban will center around a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol. As pretty much a sole fighter, the EU will try to convince other parties of committing anew.

In 2012, the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will expire. The Protocol, created in 1997, legally bound 37 industrialized countries and countries in transition to cut down on 5% of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during the past five years. As decided by the contracting parties at the Climate Summit in Bali 2007, the follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (KP2) should have been put into place in Copenhagen in 2009. However, until now, the parties have still not come to an agreement on the principal controversial issues of a KP2: the level of GHG reductions, the involvement of the developing countries and the extent of financial transactions. This week, the international community will again meet together at the 17th UN Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa. Time is pressing for decisions, which is why this summit could be the match point for the future of the Kyoto Protocol.
"We must do as much as we can to push others forward."
Connie Hedegaard, Commissioner for Climate Action

According to figures of the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the EU is the world's third-highest emitter of CO² emissions, following China, and the US as first and second respectively. The United States has never ratified the Kyoto Protocol nor cut down its GHG emissions. China is not a legally bound party to the Protocol and its CO² emissions have increased by 206% since 1990. The other important industrialized parties to the treaty, Japan and Canada, have completely failed to meet their reduction targets and have already refused to renew their commitments. Also Russia, which has shown brilliant reduction results, has pulled out again.
On the contrary, the EU-15 has proven to be a credible precursor of the Protocol, as it is predicted to meet its reduction target of 8% by 2012. According to a recently voted resolution by the European Parliament, the EU will take on leadership at the UN Climate Conference and push for a second commitment period.

Connie Hedegaard, Commissioner for Climate Action, is determined to fight for KP2, as she argued during a press conference last thursday: "Europe has been ready and is ready to commit again." Confronted with the challenge that the EU will be a lone fighter, she stated: "Should we just relax and leave it to the rest? No, we must do as much as we can to push others forward." However, it will be a tough fight, especially as the EU' s demands towards the other parties are very high. The EU's overall aim at Durban is to prepare for a legal framework for cutting down on GHG emissions, which the whole international community should take part in. The EU is prepared to commit itself again, but also requests this from others – an expectation that is reasonable, but unlikely to be fulfilled.

All in or all out?

Europe's main discussion partners for a KP2 are now the developing countries, and among them especially the Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs). These countries are willing to prolong the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, as they stated during a separate "BASIC Group" (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) conference in August. However, what might seem to support the EU's ideas at first glance, is also the source of controversy as well.

The developing countries – and under the Kyoto Protocol, the NICs are counted for as such – are not legally bound parties, i.e., they do not commit to any GHG reductions. They are mainly included in the Protocol by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which facilitates investments for climate change mitigation by industrialized countries in developing countries, e.g. alternative energy projects. These investment projects are mainly carried out in the NICs, which is where emission reduction is easiest to achieve. Unsurprisingly, that the BASIC group is very keen on preserving its special status under the Protocol.

However, this status is a key issue that Commissioner Hedegaard wants to see changed for the KP2. She says that this "artificial division between developed and developing countries does not reflect the world as it is today" and demands that developing countries are legally taken into account as well. She argues this demand by pointing out that the BRICS already represent almost one-third of the world's GDP and that by 2020, nearly two-thirds of global emissions will come from these countries. This concerns especially China which shows the largest growth in GDP and the largest volume of GHG emissions among the BASIC countries.

Nevertheless, Hedegaard does not want to absolve the responsibility of the industrialized world vis-à-vis the developing countries: "Today, the investments under the CDM go into very few countries. It is our aim to make CDM more attractive, especially for the very poor, least developed countries." Thus, it is another aim of the Commissioner to push forward the implementation of the Green Climate Fund which should furnish the developing countries with $100 billion a year by 2020.

The special status of the developing countries has since the childhood of the Kyoto Protocol been the main argument of important industrialized countries (the so called JUSCANNZ – Japan, US, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Norway, New Zealand) to not at all or only hesitantly ratify the Protocol. In this respect, Hedegaard's claim for the "same legal value for developed and developing countries" seems like a good (and probably the only) strategy to get the JUSCANNZ countries into the game as well.

The BASIC countries know that they must make promises on GHG reductions if they want to receive financing from the EU. The Economist reported that China has promised a 40% reduction by 2020, Brazil of 36%. However, these promises are far away from being a legally-bound commitment. And even Hedegaard's forecasts during the press conference denote that China is mainly interested in projects using the financial mechanisms implied in the Protocol. Playing the same game, the United States is more willing to pay off its bad climate conscience by contributing to the Green Climate Fund instead of reducing their GHG emissions.

Changes between 1990 and 2010,
showing decoupling of GDP growth and emission level in the EU
source: IEA, 2011
The EU's ideal for a KP2 would be "all in" for legally bound emission reductions. If this is the sole aim of the KP2, at the moment, it seems more likely to result in an "all out". In order to come to an agreement upon the KP2, it will most likely be necessary to continue working with "soft instruments", such as CDM, for developing countries. However, if these investments can prove that decoupling economic growth from CO² emissions is also possible in newly industrialized countries, they may pave the way for legal commitments from these countries in the future. If, on the other hand, these countries realize that they can endlessly count on investments from Europe without committing themselves, the match point for the "true Kyoto" will never even be played.

by Elena Fries-Tersch