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Spotlight Cancún: Kyoto Protocol Post Mortem
email this pageprint this pageemail usKristen Sheeran - TripleCrisis
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December 10, 2010

This week the world stands by as international negotiators in Cancun appear to be writing the post mortem for the Kyoto Protocol. It seems likely that an alternative track first proposed in Copenhagen – the Copenhagen Accord – will replace the top-down U.N. centered approach to climate change that has characterized international climate negotiations since the early 1990s.

Many view the Copenhagen Accord as a major set-back to global efforts to stabilize the climate system. Others see it as a realistic alternative to the Kyoto framework which failed to induce the participation of the U.S., now the world’s second largest emitter, and exempted major emitters like China and India from reductions.

The Copenhagen Accord signifies a major shift in both the tenor and structure of international cooperation on climate change. Here are some of the major changes and potential consequences as I see them.

1. The Copenhagen Accord calls for voluntary emissions reductions, no penalties for non-compliance, but improved transparency over individual country reduction efforts.

Although other industrialized economies were willing to accept binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, the time period of waiting for a U.S. commitment to emissions reduction has come to a close. Despite its stated support for climate change solutions, the Obama Administration was unwilling to accept binding U.S. emissions limits in Copenhagen, and it was unwilling to throw its weight behind national cap-and-trade legislation. It is hard to imagine a new international agreement on climate change that legally commits the rest of the world to reductions until such time as the U.S. demonstrates a serious commitment at home.

The problem, of course, is that the world has already tried a voluntary approach to emissions reduction without success. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which laid the groundwork for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), marked the first unified attempt by the global community to address global warming. More than 150 countries, including the U.S., signed the UNFCC and made voluntary commitments to reduce emissions. But it became apparent, almost immediately, that countries would fail to meet their voluntary targets. For this reason, binding commitments were agreed to in 1997 as part of the Kyoto Protocol.

2. The Copenhagen Accord includes pledges for emissions reductions from the U.S, the only industrialized economy that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, as well from rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Brazil.

In 1992, the UNFCC established the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities for emissions reductions. This meant that industrialized countries – countries with the means and responsibility historically for the build-up of greenhouse gas emissions – would take the lead in combating climate change. It was the rationale for Kyoto’s bifurcated structure: industrialized countries were to reduce emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels while developing countries were exempt from emissions limits unless compensated.

This structure, justified on grounds of fairness, ultimately proved politically untenable. Countries like the U.S. resented the potential “free-riding” of emerging global powers like China and India on emissions reduction efforts. Exemptions that were deemed tolerable for developing countries in 1992 seemed increasingly at odds with emerging economic realities. China has now surpassed the US as the world’s largest emitter (though not on a per capita basis) and projected emissions from the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) can dwarf the emissions reductions of other industrialized countries.

While it is true that no country alone, including the U.S. or China, can prevent average temperatures from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius through its own efforts, it is also true that not all countries will matter to global reduction efforts and that the actions of a handful of heavy emitting countries will largely determine the future of our climate system. Those BASIC countries, along with the U.S., EU, Japan, Canada, Australia and a few other countries will make the difference. The Copenhagen Accord reflects this political-climate reality in a way that the Kyoto Protocol could not, given its division of the world into two camps.

3. The Copenhagen Accord marks a real shift in the international community’s commitment to climate equity.

The UNFCC defined climate equity as preferential access to the global atmospheric commons on the basis of ability to pay or past contributions to the climate problem. The Copenhagen Accord makes no such concession. The collapse of the Kyoto Protocol is really the collapse of an international burden sharing agreement.

In the international arena, climate justice is increasingly being viewed through the lens of adaptation assistance and technology transfer. This shift reflects the growing urgency of the problem. Technology transfer is necessary because industrialized economies alone cannot prevent the climate crisis. Adaptation assistance is critical because we are already too late to prevent at least some climate change impacts on vulnerable nations. The shift in emphasis towards adaptation reflects what many fear but dare not to say – that we may not succeed in holding temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius or less.

It is no surprise that the developing world largely resents this change. To shift from a structure that explicitly acknowledged the unused rights of developing nations to the global commons, to a structure that usurps those rights on the grounds that they can no longer be afforded, is indeed a bitter pill to swallow.

4. The Copenhagen Accord signifies the end of approaching emissions reduction as a global public good.

Emissions reduction is a pure public good. Emissions reductions by any one country can benefit all countries and the climate system cares not where emissions reductions take place. Public goods give rise to the potential for free riding: why should any one country reduce emissions when it can benefit from the efforts of others? Carried to its logical conclusion, the public goods dilemma (more widely known as the prisoner’s dilemma) implies that emissions reduction efforts must be global and participation must be binding.

Implicit in this public good narrative, however, is the assumption that no one country finds it in its own individual self-interest enough to reduce emissions. But this view of the rewards to climate action is increasingly at odds with climate science and the perceived threat to national security posed by climate change. A fascinating new paper by my colleague, Stephen DeCanio, suggests that as countries like the U.S. come to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change risks, the perceived rewards to international cooperation may shift, and the “game” will appear less like the typical public good prisoner’s dilemma game, and more like a coordination game. The latter scenario, a coordinated effort amongst world powers to address an existential threat, may look a lot like the Copenhagen Accord.

Kristen A. Sheeran is executive director of Economics for Equity and the Environment Network, and author, with Graciela Chichilnisky, of Saving Kyoto.

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