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OPINION: Whither the Kyoto Protocol?

Hans Verolme, senior strategic adviser to civil society organisations and governments on international climate change and green development challenges, reflects on the outcomes of CoP17. 

This year, Farhana Yamin and I worked with the Berlin-based Heinrich Boell Foundation on a project about the future of international climate politics. We stimulated people to look beyond the traditional negotiations horizon. My paper took an unsentimental look at the key challenges facing the climate community. Farhana in her contribution focused on the potential of new alliances. The publication can be found here.

One of our conclusions was that despite its well-documented flaws, the Kyoto Protocol remains a cornerstone of the climate architecture. The Durban climate negotiations therefore needed formally to adopt a second commitment period and increase ambition. But before summarising what actually happened at Durban, and what didn’t, a bit of history.

Kyoto has been declared dead more often than I care to recall. However, since its signing in 1997, the politics of climate change have fundamentally shifted. In 2001, I remember huddling with EU diplomats at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC, to discuss a joint response to the announcement by the Bush administration that, despite an election promise to act on climate change, Kyoto was now officially a four-letter word. Just last week, Canada, after a decade of inaction at home, formally withdrew from Kyoto. The media treated it as a non-event, coming in the midst of a global financial and economic crisis.

I also remember the creativity with which NGO colleagues worked with the EU to engage Russia on ratification of the Protocol. This included a side deal on trade and allowed ‘hot air’ into the system, but it secured Kyoto’s entry into force in 2005. Back then, the launch of the European Emissions Trading System was considered a major step towards a global carbon market that would finally price pollution at the source. Today, we know that the grandfathering of emissions permits was akin to writing a blank check to Europe’s industrial giants. There is also enough of that ‘hot air’ around to delay the need for deep emissions reductions well into the 2020s. Clearly, Europe in 2012 needs to develop a fresh approach to domestic action.

Last year in Cancun, I participated in intense talks with the Japanese environment minister, whose government had decided to try and jump ship from Kyoto. Japan had become more concerned with the narrow interests of its industry lobby then with honouring Kyoto. The disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant did not fundamentally alter that reality. And yet there were signs of hope: Australia, after a battle that had dragged on since 2007, finally established a carbon price.

So, coming to Durban we knew the stakes were high and the odds low. But let’s face it, without an international-binding rules-based climate agreement, all we get is green wash. Durban both did and did not deliver. We did see the emergence of a progressive alliance of sorts. Europe, the small islands, and the least developed countries came together. It was like watching turtles mate. It worked, they publicly insisted on securing a rules-based multilateral agreement that has mitigation ambition at its core. As a result, governments in Durban agreed to launch the second commitment period. But crucial details were left unresolved, partly as a result of Polish intransigence over the future use of ‘hot air’ and a strong forest lobby eager to grow their emissions. As a result the precise targets remain to be agreed at CoP-18.

The political energy is shifting to a new round of talks: the promise of something new, bigger and better to supersede Kyoto. But those talks will be about what governments can promise they, and often their successor governments, will do from 2020 onwards. Unless we challenge the complacency and expose what business-as-usual does to our climate a second commitment period to Kyoto will also be the last. Hence, I do not share the cautious optimism of CDKN’s Durban assessment.

Durban did show the importance of vigorously pursuing international talks and for civil society to creatively and bluntly fight for a climate safe future for all. But the present I wanted from Santa was a substantive Durban package, not this largely empty box.

We occasionally invite bloggers from around the world to provide their experiences and views. The views expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of CDKN.  

Hans J H Verolme can be contacted at

Image: Durban, S Africa. Credit Oxfam International.


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