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Kyoto Zombie Still Walking

by Michael Levi
April 5, 2011

Here’s what I wrote the morning after the Cancun climate talks ended:

“There is one big hole in the Cancun agreement that many observers, in their excitement, appear to have quickly forgotten: its treatment of the Kyoto Protocol…. The Cancun result punts the dispute to next year’s talks…. The big challenge for next year’s talks will be to protect Cancun’s progress and momentum from the inevitable acrimony over Kyoto.”

And here’s the news from the first post-Cancun session of the talks, currently underway in Bangkok:

“Poorer nations upped the ante on rich countries at U.N. climate talks on Tuesday by demanding that the world’s main climate treaty be extended from 2013 and for industrialised countries to deepen carbon-cutting pledges…. [Tuvalu delegate Ian Fry] urged nations that did not support an extension of Kyoto to leave the room, triggering applause.”

Too many folks in the developed world, though, continue to ignore this reality in the hopes that it will go away. NRDC’s Jake Schmidt is a bellwhether: in his otherwise insightful curtainraiser for Bangkok, he describes the ideal agenda for this year’s UN talks. The word Kyoto doesn’t show up.

This is an increasingly untenable approach. Alas, I’m still at a loss for a solution. The United States, Japan, and Australia have made it emphatically clear that they will not participate in Kyoto II. European nations are of various stripes. Some developing countries are ideologically attached to Kyoto. Others might be more pragmatic in principle, but are boxed in by domestic politics. There is no way to finesse this on the substance.

The best we can hope for, I suspect, it to find a procedural approach that insulates Cancun’s gains from the impending Kyoto blowup. The first task is to make that clash as unsurprising as possible; Europeans could help with that by coming down more clearly against Kyoto II. This won’t make support for a new Kyoto commitment period melt away, but it may give developing countries and their publics more time to come to terms with the inevitable. The second task is to make the Cancun follow-on as substantive as possible: with more concrete progress on the line, states may be more hesitant to jettison it over a Kyoto fight. A third prong might involve public diplomacy, particularly in places like India, Brazil, and Indonesia.

But I’m far from confident that this will do the trick. When I started this blog a year ago yesterday, the Kyoto conundrum was the subject of my first post; I was equally despairing then as to a solution. Does anyone have any new ideas?

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  • Posted by Andrew Stevenson

    I actually don’t think there is an impending Kyoto blowup, despite the coming end of the first commitment period. Until a new agreement with some legally binding character for all major emitters is imminent, developing countries will continue hammering away in public on this, while allowing last minute progress to bubble up on other issues in order to maintain confidence in the process (ala Cancun). So in that sense it’s just pressure and time until the conditions are right for a new agreement to take shape while Kyoto remains in a holding pattern.

    The more fundamental solution as I see it is for willing parties to be more aggressive in promoting a different architecture for international climate cooperation that is oriented around action and does not have a binding agreement as the ultimate endpoint or the UNFCCC as the central venue. I think this has generally happened among many thought leaders, the private sector and some governments, and a lot is happening on the ground. Only once these actions are concrete enough will it be possible to make the broader case internationally that this is the way to go.

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