Do we really love the Kyoto Protocol?

Rarely can the dry text of a UN agreement have been lavished with such affection. Young activists at the Cancún climate change conference sang and danced around a heart-shaped hoop in praise of the Kyoto Protocol.

In the meeting rooms, their senior colleagues hurled verbal grenades in the direction of Japan and other countries which openly preach death to the Protocol.

Mohamed Adow of Christian Aid told journalists that that Japanese statement “certainly puts (at risk) the lives, livelihoods and well-being of millions of people across the world.” Meena Raman, tireless campaigner for the Third World Network, declared that “we will reject any outcome which does not respect the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol.”

This is a good moment to remind ourselves that the objective of this totemic agreement, in the words of the UN Convention on Climate Change to which it is attached, is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.”

It’s painful to report that, between the Kyoto Protocol baseline year of 1990 and the end of 2009, global greenhouse gas emissions rose uncontrollably by 40%. Financial support for adaptation plans drawn up by the poorest countries has been embarrassingly negligible. The Clean Development Mechanism has brought no clean development to Africa.

Why are we in love with this loser?

For enlightenment, there is no better source than Martin Khor, a veteran campaigner at UN conferences and now Executive Director of the South Centre, which provides “intellectual support” to developing countries.

Khor’s pre-conference briefing criticizes the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, the controversial agreement favoured by US and Japan as the basis for replacing the Kyoto Protocol:

there is no aggregate target to be set in accordance with what the science says is required. There is no mechanism to review the commitments (individual and aggregate) and to get Parties to revise them so that they meet adequate levels.

These are valid criticisms but climate change campaigners tend to assume that the remedy lies in extending the current agreement. They say that a second period of commitment under the Protocol would oblige richer (Annex 1) countries to respect legally-binding science-based targets for cuts in emissions.

This chorus of approval of the Kyoto Protocol looks suspect under scrutiny. Its current global target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5% was certainly not based on science. It was whittled down from a higher figure in the spirit of old-fashioned compromise which was alive and kicking at the time of the Kyoto conference in 1997.

As for legally binding, the non-compliance regime of the Protocol has proved toothless. Initially cagey about their failure to cut emissions, offending countries such as Canada and Japan have become increasingly bold in putting up two proverbial fingers at the “law”.

Many of the supposed virtues of the Kyoto Protocol have been endowed by misattribution. The interests of developing countries are vitally served by the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” between rich and poor nations; likewise, the legal obligation for Annex 1 and other developed countries to provide financial assistance for climate adaptation and mitigation.

Whilst often associated with the Kyoto Protocol, these safeguards are enshrined within its parent, the Framework Convention on Climate Change. All countries are party to the UNFCCC, including the US, and none has any intention of walking away.

The Kyoto Protocol has failed because it regulates far less than half of all global emissions. The US is not a party, China has no obligations, and aviation and shipping are excluded. Participating countries have gratefully exploited rules which are riddled with loopholes.

With China, US and all developing countries potentially on board, the Copenhagen Accord would tackle over 80% of global emissions. Furthermore, at the end of its infamous statement about the Kyoto Protocol, Japan called for the alternative to be a “legally binding instrument with all major emitters.” On Wednesday there were signs that the G77/China group of countries might also contemplate a legally binding deal.

Whatever the inadequacies in pledges of emissions reductions and financial assistance under the Copenhagen Accord, we shouldn’t be surprised that some countries interpret these signals as a basis for negotiation.

They argue that the energies of the conference should focus on the Accord’s shortcomings rather than clinging on to the so-called twin track, comprehensible only to UNFCCC insiders.

Developing countries and their NGO advisers are right to fight for the Kyoto Protocol. They are right to point out that the rich Annex 1 countries are legally bound to negotiate a second commitment period. And that the US is bound by the 2007 Bali Action Plan to make a comparable contribution to such negotiations.

But it might be wise not to embellish the Kyoto Protocol with powers it does not possess. And to recognise that the Bali Action Plan exists only by virtue of clumsy sticking plaster which was not designed to withstand the pressures of global recession.

On the first day of the conference, the UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, stressed that “Cancún will be successful if parties compromise.” The job of all sides now is to look at those lines in the Cancún sand and start asking tough questions.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK