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Robert Stavins


Canada's Step Away From the Kyoto Protocol Can Be a Constructive Step Forward

Posted: 06/11/11 07:38 PM ET

Canada confirmed this week that it will not take on a target under an extension of the Kyoto Protocol following the completion of the first commitment period, 2008–2012. Given that Canada is likely to miss by a wide margin its current target under the first commitment period, this decision may not be surprising, but it is nevertheless important. More striking, it may actually turn out to be a positive and constructive step forward in the drive to address global climate change through meaningful international cooperation. Why do I say that?

The Current Situation

The Kyoto Protocol, which essentially expires at the end of 2012, divides the world into two competing economic camps. Emission reductions are required for only the small set of "Annex I countries" (essentially those nations that used to be thought of as comprising the industrialized world). Such reductions will not reduce global emissions, and whatever is achieved would be at excessive cost, because of having left so many countries and so many low-cost emissions-reduction opportunities off the table. Furthermore, that dichotomous distinction is by no means fair: more than 50 non–Annex I countries now have higher per capita incomes than the poorest of the Annex I countries. (I have written about this and other issues surrounding the Kyoto Protocol in the past: Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun; Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen; Three Pillars of a New Climate Pact).

The United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and has made it clear that it will not take on a target under a second commitment period. The U.S. position continues to be that a considerably broader agreement is necessary — one that includes commitments not only from the Annex I (industrialized) countries, but also from the key emerging economies, such as China, India, Brazil, Korea, Mexico, and South Africa.

For much the same reason, Russia and Japan announced last year that they would not take on post-2012 commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Further, it is unlikely that Australia will take on such a commitment under Kyoto, essentially leaving the European Union on its own.

On the other hand, the Kyoto Protocol is enthusiastically embraced by the non—Annex I countries (sometimes inaccurately characterized as the "developing countries"), because it holds out the promise of emissions reductions by the wealthiest nations without any responsibilities (costs) borne by others, including the emerging economies.

The Path from Copenhagen to Cancun to Durban

Year after year, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has failed to reach agreement on a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol. Most recently, in December, 2010, the issue was punted from the annual conference held in Cancun, Mexico, to the next conference, scheduled for December, 2011, in Durban, South Africa.

Because Durban provides the last opportunity to set up post-2012 targets (with time remaining for national ratification actions), it has been anticipated that the negotiations in Durban will re-ignite the divisiveness and recriminations that highlighted the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009—with verbal hostilities between Annex I countries and non–Annex I countries dominating the discussions at the expense of any other considerations or meaningful actions.

A Positive and Constructive Step Forward

The decision just announced at meetings in Bonn, Germany, by the Canadian delegation that Canada will not take on a target in a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol can be a very constructive step forward. This is because it greatly reduces the risk that this year's annual meeting of the Conference of the Parties in Durban will be dominated by acrimonious debates about a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol.

On the contrary, this announcement should encourage the non–Annex I ("developing") countries, which have been insisting on a second commitment period, to begin to accept the reality that with the United States, Japan, Russia, and now Canada on record as not endorsing a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol, it is infeasible for the European Union to go it alone. (Indeed, one might suspect that Australia and most European nations are privately pleased by Canada's announcement.)

The reality is that the world will be better off by focusing on sensible alternatives under the Long-Term Cooperative Action track of the UN negotiations and by "getting real" about post-Kyoto international climate policy architecture for the long term, such as by putting some additional meat on the Cancun Agreements and by considering any supplemental and sensible architectures the various parties wish to discuss. (For previous posts on the Cancun Agreements, see: Why Cancun Trumped Copenhagen; What Happened (and Why): An Assessment of the Cancun Agreements; Defining Success for Climate Negotiations in Cancun. For descriptions of a wide range of potential global climate policy architectures--ranging from top-down to bottom-up--see the diverse publications of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements.)

Next Steps

At Cancun, it was encouraging to hear fewer people holding out for a commitment to another phase of the Kyoto Protocol, but it was politically impossible to spike the idea of extending the Kyoto agreement entirely. Instead, it was punted to the next gathering in Durban. Otherwise, the Cancun meeting could have collapsed amid acrimony and recriminations reminiscent of Copenhagen.

Usefully, the Cancun Agreements recognize directly and explicitly two key principles: (1) all countries must recognize their historic emissions (read, the industrialized world); and (2) all countries are responsible for their future emissions (think of those with fast-growing emerging economies). In important ways, this helps move beyond the old Kyoto divide.

The acceptance of the Cancun Agreements last December suggested that the international community may have begun to recognize that incremental steps in the right direction are better than acrimonious debates over unachievable targets. Canada's announcement should help advance that recognition, and can thereby lead to vastly more productive talks this year in Durban.