The U.N. climate change conference currently taking place in Doha, Qatar, will decide the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which is the world’s only legally binding climate treaty. Although the protocol has only marginally affected global emissions, it is still necessary to keep the policy infrastructure associated with it intact.
Here are some key facts about the protocol, issues regarding its continuation, and reasons to support its next phase.
First and second periods of the Kyoto Protocol
The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change aims to promote emissions reductions that will hold global temperature increases to below 2 degrees Celsius higher than preindustrial levels. The Kyoto Protocol is among its tools.
The first period of the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding targets for emissions reductions for 37 industrialized nations and the European Union, will end this year. A main goal of the current climate talks is therefore to implement a second period of the Kyoto Protocol, which will serve as a bridge between the first period and the international treaty that will emerge from the Durban Platform established in 2011 and will take effect in 2020.
Participants and bystanders
The European Union and countries including Australia, Norway, Liechtenstein, Croatia, Ukraine, Iceland, and Switzerland have committed to binding targets in a second period of the protocol. Australia, for example, pledged to reduce its emissions at least 0.5 percent by 2020, and the European Union pledged to reduce its emissions at least 20 percent by 2020—both from the base year 1990. Although Japan, Russia, Canada, and New Zealand were signatories of the first period of the protocol (Canada later announced that it would not attempt to meet its agreed-upon target), they are declining to participate in the second period. In addition, the second period will not include the United States, which signed but never sought to ratify the original treaty in the Senate.
Issues to be addressed
A number of questions about the second period of the Kyoto Protocol need to be resolved during the climate talks, such as:
- Should the duration of the second period be five years or eight years?
- Should developed countries that are not signatories be permitted to participate in the carbon market that the protocol creates through programs such as the Clean Development Mechanism (discussed in the next section)?
- Should countries be permitted to transfer emissions credits from the first to the second period?
Blocs of countries including the Alliance of Small Island States, Least Developed Countries, and the African Group, which represent “100 countries and 1.4 billion people who are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” released a statement on November 26 arguing that the second period of the protocol should last for five years, making the targets for emissions reductions more ambitious. The European Union, however, opposes a five-year period, citing in a press conference on December 3 the gap that would be created before the next treaty takes effect in 2020.
The statement from the Alliance of Small Island States and others also argues that the transfer of emissions credits from the first to the second period should be curtailed and that only parties to the protocol should be permitted to participate in the carbon market it creates. Brazil also came out strongly opposed to credit carryover. According to the Brazilian U.N. Ambassador André Corrêa do Lago, “The second phase has to have environmental integrity, and you will not have that if countries are allowed to carry over [the credits]. The second period will be completely compromised. This is not a way to have effective reductions.”
The proposal to facilitate negotiations regarding the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was released on December 1 for discussion, and these issues are due to be resolved this week.
Reasons to support the second period
The Kyoto Protocol is of course inadequate on its own as a defense against climate change. It applies to only a fraction of global carbon emissions, as the countries with the highest emissions (the United States and China) and the bloc of nations with the highest emissions (developing countries, as represented by the so-called Group of 77) are not bound by the protocol. Some, including the United States, never ratified the treaty, but the bulk of the emissions not covered are from developing countries that in fact are members of the protocol but are not required to reduce emissions. Moreover, the reductions achieved by Kyoto countries in the first period may have been due less to the agreement than to factors such as “the collapse of greenhouse-gas producing industries in eastern Europe and, more recently, the global economic crisis.”
There are a number of reasons, however, to support the second period of the protocol. First, although the Kyoto Protocol alone will not prevent a world that is 4 degrees Celsius (World Bank estimate) to 6 degrees Celsius (International Energy Agency estimate) warmer—a world we are on schedule to inhabit by the end of the century without increased mitigation efforts—it is merely one track of what should be a “multiple multilateralism” method to achieve climate security. And it’s the only international and legally binding agreement we have on climate change, at least until 2020.
Second, many representatives from developing countries believe that Annex I countries should “take the lead in undertaking deep binding emission reductions in the short-, mid- and long-terms that reflect their historical responsibility for global emissions.” (See the submission from Argentina, Bolivia, China, Congo, Dominica, and others, on November 27.) As such, the second period of the protocol will help show the good faith that is necessary to keep developing countries involved in climate negotiations. According to Corrêa do Lago:
If rich countries which have the financial means, have technology, have a stable population, already have a large middle class, think they cannot reduce [emissions] and work to fight climate change, how can they ever think that developing countries can do it? That is why the Kyoto Protocol has to be kept alive.
Third, the protocol creates a global carbon market. Under the protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, projects in developing countries that contribute to climate stabilization such as reforestation or renewable energy projects earn credits that can be bought by rich countries and applied to their emissions targets. More than 5,000 projects have been approved—projects that likely would not have existed without the program.
At a press briefing on November 28, Corrêa do Lago said that Clean Development Mechanism projects have resulted in “more than a billion tons of [carbon dioxide] equivalent.” The program is therefore “not only a market mechanism for projects; it is an effective way of reducing emissions.” (To watch a video of the press briefing, click here) It is also an effective way of financing climate adaptation, as the program is the main source of support for the U.N. climate change convention’s Adaptation Fund. If the Clean Development Mechanism remains stable through a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, then it could be used to serve the new global treaty that is now being negotiated in a new track at Doha.
The United States is formally only a bystander in the current Kyoto negotiations, as it never ratified the treaty. But we still have an interest in seeing the protocol continue into its second period, with its Clean Development Mechanism intact, so that it may serve as a bridge to and a basis for a globally binding treaty and a working carbon market in 2020.
Gwynne Taraska is a visiting Research Associate at the Center for American Progress working with the energy and climate team. She is also the director of research at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.