In the Wake of Kyoto’s Protocol

Alejandro Nadal

Burying a corpse can be tricky. It becomes a truly difficult task when during a funeral vigil someone splashes whiskey on the dead man’s face who then stirs to rise, crying “Soul of the devil, did ye think me dead?” as in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Something similar is happening to the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that appears to be setting a new record in terms of unburied corpses. Killed in Copenhagen’s COP 15 in 2009, it got its death certificate in Cancun’s COP 16 in 2010. In Durban’s COP 17 there were wild rumors about resuscitating this zombie but they all turned out to be just that, rumors.

Today in Doha’s COP 18 the Kyoto Protocol (KP) continues to be paraded as a living body. Everybody inside the convention center will tell you that although the first (Annex I) commitment for greenhouse gas emission reductions expires in 2012, the other provisions remain in force. It’s true, but those binding commitments were the heart of the treaty. Thus, stricto sensu, the treaty is alive, but it has been eviscerated.

Kyoto met its fate in Copenhagen’s COP 15. There, a small group of heads of state and country representatives sidetracked the formal negotiations and pushed an agreement called the Copenhagen Accord. When the draft was presented to the plenary session, where representatives of 150 countries were gathered, delegates were told they had one hour to read it before voting. Pandemonium broke lose.

The Kyoto Protocol has its defects, but it was the result of a multilateral negotiating process that established legally binding commitments to reduce emissions and recognized the principle of shared but differentiated responsibilities. The Copenhagen Accord lost the first and second features, while maintaining a very tenuous link to the third.

The Copenhagen Accord (CA) recognized the need to keep temperature increases below 2° C and that the US and China should play a key role in any future climate regulatory regime. In addition, non-Annex I countries were now to submit national appropriate mitigation actions. It also set up the Green Climate Fund as the financial mechanism of the UNFCCC, but its resources were clearly insufficient (and a lot of the ‘new’ funds were from old promises).

The pièce de resistance in the CA was the agreement that developed countries would voluntarily set new and stronger emissions targets for 2020 by 31 January 2010. The key word here is of course “voluntary”: each country was free to set its base year and define its own reduction targets. The Accord actually contradicted itself because the ambition level of the current pledges for 2020 and the lack of commonly agreed goals for 2050 imperil the CA objective of limiting global warming to 2° C.

In the last two decades global CO2 emissions from burning carbon fuels have increased by 49% according to research by the Tyndall Centre of the University of East Anglia. (Fossil fuel emissions increased by 5.9% in 2010 and by 49% with respect to 1990, the reference year of the Kyoto Protocol.) This is not surprising: among other things, fossil fuel subsidies in rich countries are five times greater than climate aid to developing countries.

To avoid ‘dangerous perturbations of climate’ (in the terse language of UNFCCC) Doha should be considering options like leaving 2/3 of the world’s reserves of fossil fuels underground (as pointed out by McKibben and Hansen). Instead of considering these options, climate change negotiations have now shifted to the ‘specifics’ of REDD+ and ‘climate smart’ agriculture. There is enough reason to be concerned. The legal dictum that accessory things go along with the fate of the principal (accesorium sequitur principale) may apply here: if the core of the Kyoto Protocol has disappeared, accessory items become meaningless.

Doha is the latest in a process transforming mandatory obligations or legally binding commitments into market-based solutions where “offsetting” is the magic word. In addition to giving the impression that something helpful is being done, this also provides an opportunity for new markets and novel spaces for financial speculation. But let’s not fool ourselves. These market-based mechanisms have failed to achieve meaningful emissions’ reductions and, in fact, may be delaying investments in new technologies that reduce our carbon footprint.

Doha’s COP 18 will not reach an agreement with deep reduction targets of greenhouse gas emissions to curb rising temperatures. Instead, it will consolidate the new era of market-friendly instruments.

The climate changes to come will be truly epochal, as the demise of Finnegan, the builder of cities in Joyce’s monumental work. As Finnegan attempts to rise during his wake the congregation soothes him and entreats him to go back to sleep, telling him that his successor has already arrived. Finnegan’s heir was, among other things, a shopkeeper, a merchant. Applied to our story, this is indeed quite fitting: the age when firm regulatory regimes were built is now over and done. The age of merchants and their market-based solutions has arrived.

Alejandro Nadal is the Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies of El Colegio de Mexico.

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