A constructivist take on ten years of the Kyoto Protocol

A short while ago, the Kyoto Protocol marked its tenth anniversary of entry into force, to a deafening silence. If it hadn’t been for a useful RTCC piece on this anniversary, it would have entirely passed me by. (An entry into force anniversary is not insignificant for the KP, but a little out of place in broader terms as most treaty anniversaries probably take the conclusion of negotiations on the treaty text as the main symbolic marker).

These ten-year retrospectives have tended to focus on the core single question of whether the protocol has been effective in meeting its objective of emissions reduction, with the UNFCCC Secretariat offering an ebullient comment (a “timely reminder [that] climate agreements work”), and more measured comment elsewhere (a “failure” and that reductions attributable to the the KP’s provisions are “unlikely”). But there are certainly other ways to take stock of the Kyoto Protocol – and in this post, I want to offer a few that are probably of less interest to climate wonks, but perhaps more so to IR constructivists interested in how ideas and norms play out in international politics. What are the ideational takeaways from ten years of the Kyoto Protocol?

The socialization of carbon markets in developing countries
One legacy of the Kyoto Protocol that is widely acknowledged is its use of market mechanisms and emissions trading – not just among developed country parties with binding emission reduction commitments, but including developing countries via the Clean Development Mechanism. The UNFCCC Secretariat counts some 7,800 CDM projects registered since 2005, each intended to facilitate investment and tech transfer from developed countries to developing ones for emission-reduction projects that also contribute to sustainable development.

This marks a pretty dramatic normative change, however, in the normalisation of the idea of emissions trading among developing countries. Before and during the 1995-1997 negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, the very idea of emissions trading between developed and developing countries was viewed with considerable suspicion and wariness by many developing countries – variously, that it would open the doorway to binding mitigation commitments by them; that such trading was an attempt to claim the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of ‘easy’ mitigation opportunities in poorer countries for credit by rich countries; that it was a way for richer countries to avoid domestic mitigation action; and that such trades would violate the sovereignty of developing countries. These were largely reflected in debates on ‘joint implementation’ (JI) – now a mechanism solely between countries with Kyoto mitigation commitments, but initially mooted as a developed-developing country process, and in those Kyoto-era debates, the G77 had opposed even having a clause in Kyoto on JI or emissions trading at all.

Fast forward to 2015, where only a handful of countries retain a principled opposition to the use of markets in addressing climate change (Venezuela and Bolivia the chief protagonists in this regard). This difference in developing country attitudes to markets is striking. While concerns about the environmental integrity and robustness of such market mechanisms (especially in relation to deforestation) remain, the greater concern that has been expressed over the life of the CDM is not that ‘this is the wrong way to address climate change’, but ‘why is my country not on the receiving end of CDM projects’. The normative rise of market mechanisms is perhaps the dramatic example of rapid social learning and ideational change among developing countries over the lifetime of the Kyoto Protocol.

Achievements of the Clean Development Mechanism. Credit: UNFCCC Secretariat

 

The standard of civilisation and Protocol membership
Another, but more subtle, constructivist perspective on the Kyoto Protocol over the lifetime of its first commitment period has been how it has served as a sort of ‘standard of civilisation’ in early 21st-century international society. This is obviously a reversal of the way in which this term is conventionally applied, as a normative standard imposed from Western states upon the rest – from the original racial hierarchy expressed in colonial practice, to more recent echoes in debates over state failure and humanitarian intervention – but the place of Kyoto Protocol membership and ratification in larger debates on appropriate behaviour in world politics is another remarkable achievement.

The global opprobrium faced by the United States for its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol is the case in point, where the KP was taken as a key example (alongside similar behaviour towards the ABM treaty and the International Criminal Court) of the US turn to hegemonic unilateralism during the George W. Bush administration. In doing so, not ratifying the KP was seen as an abdication of any claim to responsible great power leadership, making it the pariah and rogue state of international environmental politics and remaining ‘outside’ international society. Conversely, Australia’s own belated ratification of Kyoto in 2007, one of the first acts of the Kevin Rudd administration upon assuming office, was also held up as a return of Australia’s return to good international citizenship. Obviously one also needs to add Canada’s own formal withdrawal from the Protocol in 2011 – the only country to have done so, but an act for which it has also faced considerable international censure of a different character to those others (Russia, Japan) who declared that they would not be taking on commitments in the KP’s 2012-2020 second commitment period.

Defying the Kyoto Protocol. Credit: Wolverton/CagleCartoons.com

Defying the Kyoto Protocol. Credit: Wolverton/CagleCartoons.com

Critics point out that the fact that countries can and do walk away from the Kyoto Protocol with no punitive consequences (as well as for noncompliance generally) means that it has been a weak and toothless agreement. But such punitive consequences are rare in international environmental law, however, and we might better understand the KP’s importance through its social significance as a marker of what responsible behaviour in international politics has consisted of over the last two decades.

Path dependence and the road to Paris
Finally, in looking ahead to the anticipated Paris agreement at the end of 2015, taking measure of the Kyoto Protocol also lies in where and how the ideas expressed in the Kyoto Protocol are likely to remain sticky in the design of the new agreement.

For instance, the universality of the UNFCCC regime remains paramount (despite some contention over ‘applicability to all’), which does not seem minor when measured against the flurry of mini-lateral efforts in the late 2000s – the Asia-Pacific Partnership, Major Economies Forum, and all the other institutions giving rise to the ‘fragmentation’ and ‘regime complex’ analyses of the diverse sites of climate action. At the same time, the Paris agreement is not the third commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. At least one thing that is markedly different from Kyoto is the way in which commitments will be reached – ie. not ‘negotiated’ at the international level, but simply submitted via the now-initiated INDC process following being determined domestically.

There are a glut of analyses about what the Paris agreement should ‘learn’ from Kyoto, and in any case, the reality will be upon us very soon. But the package of ‘things to be done’ that will make up the Paris agreement are really a package of ideas and their assumptions about how to go about addressing climate change – things that are fertile ground for constructivists and the study of where these ideas come from.

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