Sunday, 11 December 2011

Last-minute surprise deal in Durban to save Kyoto

Chaos may be erupting at home in the European Union, but in South Africa news came this morning that the EU has scored a surprising success in international climate talks. A binding roadmap for a globally binding agreement by 2015, which the EU had demanded in exchange for continuing the existing commitments of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, was signed this morning by all greenhouse gas emitters – including the US and China. It is the first time all major emitters have agreed, in principle at least, to binding emissions reductions.

It was truly surprising news. As of Friday (the day the talks were supposed to end) it looked like they were going to collapse in failure. Though the EU had been able to convince Brazil and South Africa to sign the roadmap, the US, China and India were still refusing. There was fear that Durban would end with no deal, which would mean the end of any internationally binding emission reduction commitments. It would have essentially taken climate talks back to 1995 and made a mockery of the UN process.

The US and China did not participate in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed nations to binding emissions reductions by 2013. The Clinton Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, but by the time it came up for ratification in the US the George W. Bush administration had taken over - and they refused to ratify it. They said they would not participate in a binding protocol that did not include China, now the US’s biggest competitor.

 Since that time, the developed countries that are participating in Kyoto have reduced their emissions, and now make up only a minority of global emissions. But China has overtaken the US and is now the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. The emissions of the US have also risen compared to 1990 levels, while the EU’s have fallen.

The world was supposed to agree a new global climate deal that would include both developed and developing nations in Copenhagen in 2009. But that summit ended in failure. Talks in Cancun the following year also failed to make significant progress toward a new global deal. With the Kyoto reduction commitments expiring in 2013, that left this year's Durban summit as the last chance to continue the existing protocol. But Canada, Japan and Russia announced last year they would not participate in a second Kyoto commitment period, saying it wasn't fair when the US and China were not participating. The EU said they would continue, but only if all major emitters including the US and China agreed to a roadmap toward a new agreement to be reached by 2015.

It was a carrot and stick approach. The US and China did not want to agree to any such roadmap, but at the same time they knew that the end of Kyoto would delegitimise the UN process and basically end any hope of a global treaty on reducing carbon emissions - something they don't want to see happen either. For the EU, it was immaterial whether Kyoto was continued or not because they have already enacted domestic reduction commitments for 2020 at home. But EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said that if the EU continued in it with no conditions attached, it would allow the other major emitters to sit back and not take any action. She used the continuation of Kyoto as a bargaining chip - knowing that the US and China feared the signal it would send if it ended. In the end, it appears her strategy worked.

But it would be difficult to argue that today was a huge victory for the climate. The EU will now be going it alone in a second period of Kyoto, making it basically irrelevant as the EU only represents 11% of global carbon emissions. The binding agreement in 2015 will only agree emissions reductions to start in 2020, five years after what many scientists have said is the "point of no return" for humanity reducing emissions. They say unless emissions start being reduced by 2015, it will be impossible to limit climate change to the two degrees scientists say is that maximum that can change without grave effects on the earth's climate.

These days though, the world will take any small victories it can get. The outcome of Durban may not be anything spectacular, but at least it avoided disaster and kept the UN climate process on track.

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