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 characterised 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

A question for Obama as ‘Copenhagen’ climate negotiations continue in Bonn

Was the world doing better on climate change under President Bush?

The focus on international climate change negotiations has receded since Copenhagen last year. Copenhagen was seen as a disappointment, with its much touted outcome, the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ looking like it could lead to an almost 4C in temperature rises, causing massive devastation – and solidifying the opposition to the Accord among many vulnerable countries such as Tuvalu and the Cook Islands.

So with less fanfare than last year, the countries of the world have returned to the table to negotiate further agreement on international climate action. The second official meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for 2010 will begin Monday in Bonn, Germany, with countries hoping to begin work on a pathway toward new legally binding agreements on emission reductions, funding for adaptation to climate impacts, and international institutions/governance.

There are plenty of new things to get your head around in the climate negotiations this year. There is a new executive secretary (starting in July); a new draft-negotiation text that has just been released; and a new infusion of ideas, courtesy of the People’s Summit held in April in Cochabamba, Bolivia. There is also, of course, new science, which shows that the situation for the planet is getting worse and that climate impacts could be more severe than previously projected.

Unfortunately, what’s old is the approach of the United States. Just six months after President Obama received his Nobel Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” and his “constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting”, people across the world are beginning to question whether he has lived up to that inscription in his actions.

Under President Bush the approach of the United States was easy to understand and easy to vilify. Bush denied climate change existed. He withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol. And he obstructed international negotiations. In a famous exchange at the Bali negotiations in 2007 a delegate from Papua New Guinea, asked the United states: ‘If you’re not willing to lead, then get out of the way.’

The approach under President Obama has been much more confusing – until now. It has been confusing because the US has actively engaged in the negotiations, not blocking with procedural issues, and actively taking leadership on issues, but often doing so in a way that hasn’t pleased campaigners.[1] Now, however, President Obama has followed up on his bald-faced blackmail of small developing countries to change their position in negotiations with a submission that clearly shows that the United States is not blocking negotiations but trying to take them backwards.

As the rules now stand developed countries have a collective target for emission reductions (an aggregate target) and then they negotiate their individual country targets underneath that aggregate. The negotiations focus on how comparable each countries’ individual target is, for example that the UK is doing the same amount of heavy lifting as Germany, and they work to make sure that the total sum of countries’ commitments will meet the agreed aggregate target. They then negotiate on the rules for meeting these targets and the penalties for failing to meet them.

The United States’ recent submission refuses to negotiate on any of these issues. President Obama rejects an aggregate target for the developed countries, which means we can’t be sure of how effective their contribution will be. He rejects that targets should be comparable, so different countries do their fair share of the heavy lifting. Now poor countries like India and Bangladesh will have to do a lot more than the US to keep temperature rises from wrecking havoc on their communities. Obama also proposes that there should be no rules about how targets are met or what penalties for not meeting them should be. In effect what President Obama has announced is that the US will not negotiate on emission targets – on their size, on how they are determined, or how they are achieved. In this context when the US says it’s for a ‘legally binding outcome’ I’m with outgoing UNFCCC Executive Security Yvo De Beor when he asks what does that mean in substance?

It’s also got the world asking the broader question: what’s the point of negotiating with the US at all? If the US will do whatever it decides (a 4% cut on 1990 levels by 2020 with unlimited offsets), no matter what the world decides, then what value is there for the world letting Obama save face by pretending to be a part of the solution? Increasingly the answer seems to be: very little. Perhaps someone at Bonn will say: ‘We want to go forwards. If the US wants to go backwards, please go by yourself. We’re going forwards and you can join us later.”

To see what is actually said at Bonn check back here as I (and others) provide updates – I’ll also be tweeting @climatedebtorg

[1] See p. 48 of this report for an example of the US bracketing the entire text on developed country emission targets at Copenhagen


Alex Rafalowicz is a 24 year old climate campaigner. He graduated in 2009 from the Australian National University with first class honours in international climate change law. He was a founding member of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), is a former national president of the United Nations Youth Association of Australia (UNYA) and has worked as a consultant for the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD) on international climate negotiations. He currently manages the website www.climate-debt.org, a project that tracks references to climate debt and tweets @climatedebtorg

Community Picks