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Kyoto and Zombies

by Michael Levi
April 4, 2010

It’s apparently fashionable these days to bring zombie metaphors into international relations. So who am I to resist? Besides, when it comes to the Kyoto Protocol, it’s pretty apt, as some news out of the UK last week suggests.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Copenhagen summit was the central role occupied by Kyoto, with rich countries pushing to scrap it and poorer countries insisting it be retained, a conflict that was at the core of the dysfunctional two-week negotiation. (Some pundits, including yours truly, went so far as to pronounce Kyoto dead months before the meeting.) With the Copenhagen Accord in hand, though, a lot of people thought that we’d left Kyoto behind.

But many developing countries felt differently. And now the UK, through statements last week by Ed Miliband, has broken developed country solidarity on the issue, saying that it’s open to Kyoto II. (I’d heard noises of this sort when I was in London a couple weeks ago, but this is the first public reporting on the stance.) And so the protocol (barely) lives.

The core reality of Kyoto, which always made some of the developing country demands strike me as peculiar, is that it’s meaningless without developed country participation. Developing countries can insist all they want on keeping Kyoto, but since developed countries are the only ones with obligations under the agreement, that’s a non-starter unless those wealthier agree. And there doesn’t seem to be much in that deal for the rich countries, which would take on new emissions caps without getting anything in return. Hence the resistance at Copenhagen.

What’s the UK thinking, then? I can imagine three drivers. The first is international politics – the UK may want to score points with the developing world. The second is more tactical – Miliband seems to be sketching out a world in which Kyoto II is accompanied by a second agreement, which includes commitments from the United States and China; in this view, Kyoto II is what Europe does in exchange of the other deal. The third is domestic – Gordon Brown is fighting for his political life, and may want to burnish his green bona fides.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. On the one hand, if Europe wants to bind itself under Kyoto II, it’s not clear what direct damage that does to the United States. (Japan might be able to join, but it would need to scale back its targets; I have a very hard time seeing how Russia or Canada could come in.) On the other hand, a European focus on Kyoto II could distract it from efforts to cement the Copenhagen Accord and to promote serious bottom up mitigation efforts. The bargains Europe might have to cut to make Kyoto II happen – including CDM reform (or lack thereof) – could also complicate broader climate diplomacy.

Either way, the UK move is a reminder that Kyoto lives, despite previous signs of death. It’s important that we avoid last year’s mistake of neglecting it. But it’s not clear to me that anyone has a good idea of what we should actually do.

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