The totemic importance of the Kyoto Protocol

Sometimes no news is good news – for much of the immediate past it has seemed that any news coming out of the climate change negotiations is invariably that of deadlock, breakdown and impasse. So somewhat true to form, the main headline out of a relatively low-key first week at the Cancun UNFCCC meeting was dispute over how the last agreement – the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – will be linked to a future one. Japan’s blunt assertion that it will not accept an extension of the Protocol has brought this issue of the form of agreement front and centre.

Japan’s hope, much like that of the US, is for a single climate change agreement to take forward national commitments and obligations, rather than an extension of Kyoto into a second phase after the current one ends in 2012. But to do so runs counter to the preferences of many developing countries, who are still waiting for promises and pledges made in the Kyoto Protocol about finance, technology transfer, or rich-country emission reductions, to be fully realized. And it is in this sense that the Kyoto Protocol is ‘totemic’ – important not so much for its substantive accomplishments, but because of the values and principles embodied in it that developing countries fear will be eroded in a new agreement that is not legally linked to the Protocol.

Fundamentally, this is the developed-developing country distinction, and with it, the differentiation of responsibilities on how to take action on climate change. These distinct responsibilities principally argue that developed countries bear the burden of cutting emissions and providing the financial and technological support for poorer countries both to cut their own emissions and adapt to a changing climate. Equally, however, as I’ve noted before, is a fuzzy ambiguity about the extent to which these different responsibilities are based on historical emissions or contemporary capabilities. Interpretations that favour the former continue to hold considerable sway in the perceptions of developing country negotiators.  (In this regard, Kyoto has also been totemic for many EU countries, where after the US withdrawal in 2001, concerns about the actual effectiveness of the Protocol were overridden by the need to bring the agreement into force as a way of showing that ‘we are doing something’).

'We love the Kyoto Protocol' exhibit at COP16, Cancun - Credit: Greenpeace

For some, it can seem hugely frustrating that an agreement that has arguably made only a marginal difference to the actual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions continues to cast a shadow over the future. An Oxfam blogger sees resolving this question as “tedious housework”, and Michael Levi, from the Council for Foreign Relations, calls this the ‘Kyoto circus’ and argues that it is high time it be abandoned:

“[I]nsisting that Kyoto be extended as a condition for following through on the Copenhagen Accord is entirely inappropriate. The Accord is a political deal among national leaders, and there are only two references to Kyoto in it.”

One of them, he notes, “can be (and often is) read as indicating that Copenhagen Accord commitments are the successors to Kyoto ones.

“So let’s be clear about what’s going on. A balanced political deal was made at Copenhagen. Many countries that made that deal are now insisting that they’ll only follow through on their side of the bargain if something deliberately excluded from the original deal – new Kyoto commitments – happens. That’s wrong.”

But “can be (and often is) read as” isn’t the same as “is”. The Copenhagen Accord was nonbinding, as stressed by the major developing countries involved, and this isn’t an insignificant point.

Perhaps whether disagreement over whether the Copenhagen Accord effectively succeeds Kyoto reveals, once again, divergences in interpretations where each sees what they want to see. For the US, for whom any commitment on emission reductions has to come outside the Kyoto framework (as they are non-signatories to this framework), Copenhagen has indeed superseded Kyoto. For the major developing countries, however, I suspect, shedding the protective blanket of Kyoto would have never been meaningfully plausible, for the principled point about differentiated responsibilities is as important to them as it is to some of the smaller, but strident developing country voices. (To this end, I don’t think that this is as much about preserving carbon trading markets as Andy Revkin thinks it is)

Ultimately, if Kyoto is to remain a totemic part of the developing-country platform in these climate negotiations, it reflects one basic virtue: that as the one prior binding agreement, it provides a backstop and prevents a slippery slope on the issue of industrialised-country obligations. If there is a struggle over a new agreement, unassociated with Kyoto, it is because a prospective new agreement does not advance, or at the very least safeguard, these obligations of the rich vis-a-vis the rest.

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One thought on “The totemic importance of the Kyoto Protocol

  1. […] and symbols still matters greatly – hence the importance of the Kyoto Protocol (as I suggested in my last post): one cable, summarizing exchanges with Saudi officials, outlines the challenge of how to help the […]

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