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Kyoto Lives!

by Michael Levi
October 21, 2010

I’m in India this week for a series of meetings on energy, climate, and global governance, and I’ve been reminded, once again, of how wedded some major countries still are to the Kyoto protocol.

A quick bit of recent history: U.S. analysts (and many U.S. policymakers) spent much of 2009 trying to dream up the best possible successor to the Kyoto protocol. Kyoto itself, they assumed, was essentially in the past as a negotiating issue. (This was a natural extension of the U.S. domestic scene, where Kyoto is irrelevant.) Then they showed up at Copenhagen and were forced to spend much of it debating the future of Kyoto. Indeed many of the procedural issues that made a mess of the conference had to do with how Kyoto would be handled.

This year analysts and policymakers had no excuse for the blind spot. But we’ve still largely persisted in dodging the issue. I hosted a meeting earlier this year in which I asked several talented people to think through how to handle the Kyoto issue; there were essentially no ideas put on the table.

That’s a problem, since as my visit here has reinforced, Kyoto still matters. This will flare up again in Cancun. Part of this is simply tactical: Kyoto implements a strong version of the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, so countries like India benefit from focusing on it, at least insofar as it helps them avoid emissions-curbing obligations. The other issue is deeper: India has a pretty strong attachment to international law, and many Indians bristle at the idea of basically discarding the legal obligations that countries have taken under Kyoto.

Now there are counterpoints to both of these: If a new international arrangement looks good to India, it can abandon the tactic of emphasizing Kyoto. And if that new arrangement is legally binding, it should be comfortable moving on at a level of principle too. But a legally binding agreement isn’t in the cards – which makes this all far more difficult to resolve.

One might further counter that tussles over Kyoto don’t matter because they only affect the UNFCCC negotiations, which are a dead end anyhow. I think that’s wrong. First, the Copenhagen Accord is far from a sealed deal; it still needs to be reinforced through the UN negotiations. Moreover, as appealing as handling much of the mitigation agenda through other smaller forums is, doing that will be a lot easier politically if there’s some basic foundation through the UN.

None of this, of course, leaves me with much of an answer to what to do about Kyoto. The discussion last week in the comments on technology was great. Maybe some readers have thoughts on this considerably more difficult question?

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Josh Busby

    I’ve seen some discussion of extending the mandate of the Kyoto Protocol which could ostensibly buy some time until something better came along. This might just add some clock without new obligations. The amendment process and domestic ratification could be pretty hairy; countries like Japan that got a tough deal at Kyoto might balk which could even make Europe go wobbly, but if there is no smooth transition from Kyoto to a new non-treaty based regime under the Copenhagen Accord, then perhaps an extension of Kyoto would freeze the status quo while progress on other dimensions and implementation of Copenhagen occurs alongside.

  • Posted by prashant

    No arrangement, be it , Copenhagen or kyoto protocol , can help reducing emission-level unless there is coordinated and concerted orientation emerges to mitigate the impact of emissions thereby Every nation should grope a convergence point between Developmental and Environmental issues at National level before putting something on the International Table.

  • Posted by Hot Potatoe

    One minor detail: The first budget period under Kyoto expires in 2012. Unless there is some agreement on a second budget period, Kyoto is effectively dead. It seems to me you have ignored the key reason why Developing Countries are so attached to Kyoto: the Clean Development Mechanism is a source of substantial funding. That source will dry up in absense of a new agreement under Kyoto.

  • Posted by Arnd Bernaerts

    ## Kyoto implements a strong version of the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, ##

    The UNFCCC is without any “principles”, except carbon dioxide emission, and a corresponding international procedure to handle that, particularly through the UNFCCC Secretary and conferences. The Convention fails to define what climate is, and the used terms “climate change” and “climate” system” are absolute meaningless:

    ____Para. 2. “Climate change” means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.
    ____Para. 3. “Climate system” means the totality of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and their interactions.
    (excerpt from:

    It is nonsense to say: Climate change means the change of climate, while ‘climate system’ does not say anything more as the interaction of nature. Science is using layman’s terms without being able or willing to define them in a scientifically reasonable manner, or not to use them at all.

    The Kyoto Protocol deals only with CO2, which may ( or may not) have an impact on the physical processes in the atmosphere, but it should not be regarded as the premier, and more relevant than other parameters, which make the weather, respectively “average weather”.
    The UNFCCC’s definitions should be redrafted soon, and before the next Kyoto Protocol is negotiated and signed. An international legal instrument of this importance requires absolute clear and precise definitions.

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