This article originally appeared in
24 May, 2007
Climate: Something has to give

Amid gloom-and-doom climate predictions, the Kyoto treaty is criticized
by all: those who say it does too little, those who say too few countries are
involved, and those who say it's too costly. But something will have to give
in this debate very soon.

By Eric J Lyman in Bonn for ISN Security Watch (24/05/07)

This is the year that something's
going to have to give in the world
debate over how to best confront
climate change.

As things stand, the Kyoto Protocol -
which will turn 10 years old in
December - is the only significant
multi-lateral agreement aimed
specifically at reducing the
greenhouse gas emissions that
scientists say cause global
warming. The protocol seeks to
reduce emissions of carbon dioxide
and five other greenhouse gasses in 40 industrialized countries by an average of 5.4
percent compared to 1990 levels during the five-year compliance period that ends in

While newspapers are full of stories predicting extreme problems if temperatures
rise as predicted - melting ice caps, for example, expanding deserts, rising sea
levels, increasingly severe weather, fresh water shortages, diminishing agricultural
production and the wider spread of disease - the Kyoto treaty designed to confront the
problem is criticized on all sides. Environmentalists say it does too little;
Kyoto-skeptic nations say it involves too few countries; and even advocates say
compliance may be too costly.

More significantly, the beleaguered Kyoto document also has no say on what
happens after 2012, when the problems are expected to worsen.

Given the speed with which these types of treaties are hammered out, the UN says,
that creates a sense of urgency.

"We need to make sure that there's an architecture in place for after 2012 that starts
immediately after Kyoto rules go out of effect, with no break," Yvo de Boer, the UN's
top climate change official, told ISN Security Watch. De Boer spoke on the sidelines
of the recent negotiations in Bonn known by the unwieldy name of the 26th Session of
the Subsidiary Bodies for Scientific and Technological Advice and for Implementation
of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

"At best, that means two years to negotiate what that architecture will look like, and
two more years to have it ratified by enough countries for it to go into effect," de Boer
continued. "Do the math; that means we have to start right away."

Officially, the next step is the UN's annual climate change summit - called the
Conference of the Parties - which this December will be held in Bali, Indonesia. But
between now and then, the UN and other advocates of the Kyoto treaty are pulling out
all the stops with an upcoming set of meetings that could improve chances that
delegates at what will be the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties will agree
to go forward with negotiations for the period after 2012 starting next year.

The first such meeting will be the Group of Eight summit, to be held next month in
Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she would use the opportunity to
lobby the leaders of the world's wealthiest economies - including US President
George W Bush, the world's most visible Kyoto skeptic - to take more decisive action
on climate change.

Additionally, a normally low-key set of talks called the Fourth Ad-hoc Working Group
on Further Commitments for Annex-I Parties Under the Kyoto Protocol will meet in
late August in Vienna. Much of what was left undone at the 7-18 May talks in Bonn
was tabled until Vienna.

And the most dramatic development involves a high-level climate change summit
called by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to be held on the sidelines of the UN's
annual ministerial meeting on 24 September at UN headquarters in New York. It will
be the first time climate change policy will be discussed at such a high level. The
aim of that unprecedented meeting, UN officials say, will be to cajole countries into
making climate change talks a higher priority.

Climate beyond 2012, open for negotiation

"Every step that is being taken to move the process forward is being taken," Pat
Finnegan, director of the Irish environmental lobby group GRIAN, told ISN Security
Watch in Bonn. "But everyone knows how difficult it was to get the Kyoto agreement
in place back in the 1990s. I don't think anyone expects the next phase to be any

That is especially true given that nobody even knows what the post-2012
architecture will look like.

The Kyoto Protocol is based on what is called a cap-and-trade system. That means
there is a cap on the total emissions for any country - the average of 5.4 percent
below 1990 levels during the 2008-2012 period. Countries can either reduce
emissions to stay within that cap, buy credits from participating countries that have
reduced more than required, or earn credits by investing in emissions-reducing
projects in other parts of the world. Economists advocate systems involving trading
because they help assure that reductions come where the costs are lowest.

But there is nothing that says the agreement on the post-2012 period will look
anything like the current cap-and-trade structure.

Everything is open for negotiation: the countries that will be involved, the way
progress will be measured, the types of sanctions for non-compliance, the period of
time the agreement will cover, even whether or not the structure will be under the
auspices of the UN.

One sign that may indicate how hard it will be to reach a new agreement came at the
recent Bonn talks, when an idea first floated by Russia in 2005 finally came up for
discussion. The proposal - known by the oxymoronic-sounding name "voluntary
commitments" - is designed to streamline the process for countries not required to
accept greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments to do so voluntarily. In
recent years, there have been two countries interested in doing so: Kazakhstan and

The countries are not altruists. Because the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol is
1990, just before the Soviet-era economies of both countries collapsed, Kazakhstan
and Belarus have lower emissions today than they did 17 years ago. That likely
translates into cash for them in the form of credits that could be sold off to more
developed economies like Japan, Canada and most of Western Europe, where
emissions reductions are harder to come by. But there has been resistance to
allowing them to take on commitments.

The resistance comes from several fronts. Some Eastern European countries with
similarly advantageous emissions levels balk at adding more credits to a market for
credits already considered by many to be too unstable. And poorer countries that are
not required to take on commitments fear that if Kazakhstan and Belarus are allowed
to opt into the system, it could set a precedent by which they might be required to do
the same thing before they are ready to do so.

"If it could somehow be assured that Kazakhstan and Belarus could take on the
targets they want and then the discussion stopped there, I doubt there would be so
much controversy," former UN climate change executive secretary Michael Zammit
Cutajar, who chaired a workgroup on the subject in Bonn, told ISN Security Watch.

Still, it is noteworthy that a process created to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
would be so slow to accept a pair of countries that want to participate. Expert
observers say it is likely that Kazakhstan and Belarus will eventually be allowed to
take on commitments, though their commitments may not go into force until after
2012, when the Kyoto Protocol is officially dead. And it is still anyone's guess what
the landscape will look like at that point.


Eric J Lyman is ISN Security Watch's correspondent in Rome.