Update from Bonn: The Crazy Killing of the Kyoto Protocol

The only internationally legally binding agreement on carbon emission reductions is being abandoned by its former champion - the European Union.

International negotiations are truly crazy places. In between the ten page daily agenda which ranges from "Item 3 - a shared vision for long-term cooperative action" to "Conference and film festival: toward a new justice tryptch" (you can actually check that - that was the first and last item on the UN climate talks daily programme for 3 June) there are all sorts of personalities and zany ideas at play. For example, outgoing Executive-Secretary of the talks, Yvo De Boer, sparked controversy this week with a leaked memo calling the Copenhagen talks a 'muffin' instead of a 'cake' for their complete failure to address the climate crisis.

In a discussion about the role of NGOs in the negotiations yesterday, Yvo, as he's universally known, recounted that he'd always appreciated the 'fossil of the day' award, which NGOs give out to highlight the most backward action in international climate policy each day. He particularly appreciated receiving it once when he was just a delegate for the Netherlands and he had the temerity to suggest that 'the United States would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.'

That the US would not ratify Kyoto, the only international agreement on legally binding carbon emission reduction targets, is not such a zany idea - the US has a terrible history of agreeing to international standards on anything from the rights of women to the 'oh so now' law of the sea. That the US is now undermining the Kyoto Protocol, even though it is not a member, is not crazy but is very disappointing. What's truly crazy is that in civilised Bonn, in the heart of the European Union, the EU, formerly the champion of both international law and environmental integrity would vacate the field on both fronts.

The two fronts (environmental integrity and legal integrity) converge in the contest between what type of international instrument should be used to reduce carbon emissions - that is to say, how countries will work together, or not, to fight this global problem. One option is a system where countries collectively set a total target that is science based and fair, then negotiate their specific reductions and under a system that makes e sure everybody lives up to their promises. The second option, rather less effectively, allows countries to merely announce on the international stage what they have already decided to do domestically, even if the total effort is woefully inadequate. . Option 1 is represented by the Kyoto Protocol and Bali Action Plan system and option 2 is the 'Copenhagen Accord' system. The latter isn't global cooperation; it's a take it or leave it game of chicken that leaves the planet in peril and millions in danger.

On the environmental integrity front the Copenhagen Accord system has just taken a serious beating. The prestigious, peer-reviewed and respected scientific journal, Nature, published an article on the 22 April 2010, which used the very scientific term 'paltry' to describe the emission reduction pledges in the Copenhagen Accord. The article concludes those paltry pledges would give a greater than 50% chance that warming will exceed 3 degrees by 2100. 3 degrees is devastating, catastrophic, climate change. It's the climate change that most people, plants and animals won't survive. A greater than 50% chance. Would you get on a plane, with your daughter, your brother, your friend, your pet dog and your favourite plant if there was a greater than 50% chance of crashing? Didn't think so.

But the EU is thinking about it. In negotiations here in Bonn, the EU refused to say whether it would commit to a second round of Kyoto Protocol emission reduction targets. This is despite the Group of 77, (deceptively a bloc of over 130 of the world's poorest countries) telling the meeting that:

The continuity of the Kyoto Protocol is an essential element for the future of the climate regime...failure sends a negative signal [by rich countries] regarding their ambition and contribution to a strong climate regime.

The EU used to be characterized by its 'ambition and contribution' to a strong international climate regime, but here in Bonn they are showing a distinct lack of courage, and as the German's say, when you lose your courage you lose everything (real German saying). Similarly, Australia, whose Prime Minister was elected just 3 years ago on the promise of ratifying Kyoto because it is such an important treaty, was even more direct than the EU in negotiations in indicating that Australia (for a group of developed countries) didn't think science-based and legally enforceable targets were very important. That in effect, Australia would be complicit in killing Kyoto.

This division over direction in international climate policy is resting on a knife-edge. Just months ago the outgoing Labour Government in the UK announced it could support a second round of Kyoto. Mexico, the host of December's UN Climate Conference, where the second round of Kyoto targets is supposed to be agreed made clear that despite imperfections, 'the Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding agreement that we have.' And Norway clearly indicated that it would sign on for a second round. If the EU were to take leadership again perhaps the world could get back on track to a sensible, science based climate policy instead of the crazy-talk coming from countries in Bonn right now.

For more detailed accounts of negotiations see The Third World Network's daily reports.

You can follow Alex Rafalowicz at Bonn negotiations on twitter @climatedebtorg

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