Beyond Kyoto: the international climate change challenge

19 March 2012 (Last Updated March 19th, 2012 18:30)

UN member states know the dangers of global warming but are struggling to agree on how to tackle it. Chris Lo looks at the recent Durban Climate Change Conference, along with other international developments, to identify the main challenges blocking a unified approach to cutting emissions.

Beyond Kyoto: the international climate change challenge

Nearly 15 years after the signing of international emissions reduction agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, a genuine global consensus on how to tackle the cause and effects of climate change still remains elusive.

Despite hundreds of hours of meetings and no less than 17 United Nations Climate Change Conferences, countries are still struggling to move past their own national priorities to make positive decisions in the interests of all. Indeed, the many inconclusive talks have led some to doubt whether such a thing as a decision in the interests of all even exists.

The Durban Platform: saving COP17 from failure

"The Durban Platform contains few details beyond the commitment to start working on a global emissions reduction agreement."

The 17th UN Climate Change Conference (COP17) in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011 provides a case in point. It was possibly the tensest climate change conference to date, with talks spilling over the allotted time-frame by more than two days as delegates struggled to reconcile the divides between and among developed and developing countries.

The legacy of the frantic negotiations at COP17 is the so-called Durban Platform, a last-minute agreement committing more than 190 countries, including the world's biggest emitters China, the US and India, to working out a new, legally binding treaty on reducing emissions by 2015, with the treaty due to come into force in 2020.

The agreement undoubtedly rescued the Durban talks from abject failure, and the unprecedented commitment of China, India and the US to a legal climate change treaty, even one that won't affect them for another eight years, is an impressive step. The UN hailed it as an "historic breakthrough to save the planet".

European commissioner for climate action Connie Hedegaard said the European Union would have refused to sign up to a second Kyoto commitment period unless all other countries committed to a long-term reduction road map, and it got its wish.

"Where Kyoto divides the world into two categories, we will now get a system that reflects the reality of today's mutually interdependent world," she added.

But despite the summit's gains, the Durban Platform contains few details beyond the commitment to start working on a global emissions reduction agreement under a UN framework. Underlying rifts between countries still exist below the surface, unaddressed, and COP17's agreement tacitly acknowledges that all the contentious details of a new global treaty still need to be hammered out.

Kyoto undermined - the "dated document"

In the three months since the Durban summit, a number of dispiriting setbacks have cast doubt on the international commitment to fighting climate change, as well as undermining the very concept of a legally binding treaty. Indeed, one such setback occurred within hours of the Durban Platform's announcement in December, when Canada made a long-expected announcement that it would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

The move is hardly a surprise, as Canada laid the groundwork for leaving the protocol years ago with by admitting it did not intend to meet its Kyoto commitments and would not sign up for the second commitment period (the first running from 2008 to the end of 2012). The country's Minister of the Environment Peter Kent said in December that the new Durban agreement pointed the way forward for emissions reduction and called the Kyoto Protocol "a dated document".

Although Canada has signed up to the new treaty set to be implemented in 2020, its defection from Kyoto means that the group of Annex I countries legally bound to cut emissions in the interim period (Kyoto's second commitment period) before 2020 is now even smaller, limited mostly to those in Europe. It has also drawn criticism from the international community, especially in China, a country whose support for the Kyoto Protocol is vitally important.

Legal requirements dodged

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol is the fact that it exposed the lack of repercussions for countries that don't meet their emission targets, even in a legally binding framework. As Canada gave one year's notice before backing out of the treaty, it was able to pull out just before the end of 2012, when its emission levels compared to 1990 would have been assessed.

"Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol exposed the lack of repercussions for countries that don't meet emission targets."

Given that the country's emissions have grown by an estimated 30% rather than the six percent drop it had pledged to achieve, the government, by Kent's admission, would have had to pay more than $13bn to buy carbon credits from other Kyoto Protocol nations. As it is, Canada's completely legal withdrawal leaves it with no financial obligations whatsoever.

As the Guardian's environmental correspondent Adam Vaughan has pointed out, Canada didn't even have to leave the treaty to avoid these costs. "If Canada had remained in the protocol, it could have avoided this cost another way: by simply not meeting its targets," wrote Vaughan.

"If that happened, the protocol's compliance committee would begin a quasi-judicial procedure that would declare Canada 'non-compliant'. Beyond such naming and shaming, the committee has few powers of sanction."

For the many countries arguing that making the new 2020 treaty legally binding for all signatories is a central pillar of making it work, Canada's withdrawal will be concerning. With this precedent set, any new treaty would have to choose its wording carefully to ensure that countries can no longer back out at the last moment with such ease.

"Common but differentiated responsibilities"

Beyond legal tussles, another major sticking point leading up to the new treaty's finalisation in 2015 is the question of whether all major polluters should commit to equal emissions reduction targets.

"At the Durban summit, the US exerted its influence to block any mention of so-called 'common but differentiated responsibilities'."

Even though rapidly industrialising countries such as India and China are some of the world's top emitters, these countries understandably feel they should have the right to lower targets, as they rely on developing carbon-intensive industries to bring large swathes of their populations out of poverty. After all, the developed world had the advantage of the 19th and early 20th century's consequence-free industrial revolution to advance their own prosperity, and their modern per capita emissions are still far higher than the likes of China and India.

At the Durban summit, the US exerted its influence to block any mention of so-called "common but differentiated responsibilities", a principle of the 1992 Rio Declaration that states the developed world must accept more ambitious emissions targets due to its disproportionate contribution to the climate change problem.

However, at a summit of the United Nations Environment Programme held in Nairobi at the end of February 2012, India partnered with other major developing nations to successfully oppose a repeat of the US's move to ignore the Rio Declaration during climate change negotiations. Although the EU does not oppose the principle of differentiated responsibilities, it appears the stage has been set for this issue to become a sticking point in future climate change talks between the US and the developing world.

The main accomplishment of COP17 is that it set the global community on the road towards a meaningful global climate change treaty which addresses the problems experienced by the Kyoto Protocol. But the road is littered with obstacles that need to be overcome by the 2015 deadline, starting at June's Rio+20 sustainable development conference, before continuing with COP18 in Qatar. If the UN is to meet the goals it has set for itself and minimise environmental damage caused by climate change, members will have to collaborate like they have never collaborated before.