Will Kyoto survive Cancun?

Originally posted on http://www.thepunch.com.au 

The UN Climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico will be wrapped up this week after two weeks of steady negotiations. Delegates are furiously trying to reach consensus so that decisions can be made by Friday this week.

The story that seems to have gained the most traction back home is the question of Kyoto’s survival. Journalists seem to be advocating a range of conflicting messages – from the immanent death of the treaty to the fighting hope of its perseverance.

Reality is a little more nuanced than that and the Kyoto Protocol is one of myriad issues that need to be resolved in the next week. None the less, it is certainly not time to write off Kyoto.

Kyoto harbours such significance because historically it is the first, and indeed currently the only, international legally binding treaty to reduce carbon emissions.

141 countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol. It holds 37 developed countries to an overall target of collectively reducing carbon emissions by 5% by 2012 (on 1990 levels).

There is a lot of debate surrounding Kyoto and controversy around who is signatory and who is not, who is fulfilling obligations and who fails to do so.

Like every other treaty, it has substantial flaws. However, Kyoto is so significant because it is the only legally binding treaty that currently exists to reduce emissions.

It is also based on a very important principle of common but differentiated targets, whereby developed countries are held to specific targets whilst developing countries are not bound, in recognition of their historic lack of culpability in contributing to climate change.

Kyoto’s target commitments expire in 2012 and one of the objectives pushed by many countries (both developing and developed) in Cancun this year was to secure a second commitment period.

Japan has made a public statement that they are not prepared to support a second commitment period under any circumstances. This unequivocal statement has come as a surprise considering the origins of the historic treaty.

There has been much discussion amongst the negotiators as well as the different non-government groups present in Cancun about the ramifications of this.

Firstly, it is important to clarify that Japan’s move does not indicate the end of Kyoto. Only one part of Kyoto was bound to the 2012 expiration, the rest of the treaty will continue.

Furthermore, Japan is just one country out of 37 developed nations that are bound by the treaty. However, it is a demonstration of a marked lack of leadership that Japan has withdrawn its support at this point and there are valid concerns that other countries will follow in its footsteps.

Secondly, Australia has an important role to play here as chair of the Umbrella group in committing to targets and demonstrating leadership when it comes to progressing the Protocol.

The European Union, Norway and Australia have all openly declared their support for a second commitment period; now that Minister Combet is in town hopefully this support can be further build and cemented in a decision.

Finally, if worst comes to worst and a second commitment period is not achieved – the Kyoto Protocol will not end. It will simply cease to bind countries to specific targets.

We already know that the US is not in a position to commit to Kyoto because of its domestic political situation. COP16 in Cancun is an opportunity for negotiators to explore other means of binding countries to targets that are outside of the Kyoto framework, possibly under Long Term Cooperative Action (LCA).

This last week in Cancun is filled with early mornings and late night meetings and countries desperately trying to cross political, economic and geographical boundaries in order to reach a consensus.

Japan’s stance on Kyoto is testament to how difficult this reconciliatory process can be. However, the words of key players like Christiana Figueres give us much hope.

In a meeting with the non-government organisation Adopt a Negotiator, Figueres acknowledged that she had inherited a “diminished earth”. She expressed the necessity that that earth not be further depleted before it is handed on to yet another generation.

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