Japanese flagCANCUN, Mexico — The U.N. climate summit here has been consumed this past week over Japan’s announcement at one of the opening plenary sessions that they would not renew their emission reduction pledges under the Kyoto Protocol once the first round of required carbon cuts expire in 2012. While no one should celebrate the potential demise of the world’s only climate treaty with binding emission cuts, the reasoning of the Japanese leadership on this issue is practically unassailable. What’s more, by taking this position, Japan may also help to settle an issue that has been haunting these talks for a decade — the standoff between those who want to hold onto the protocol’s crude division of the world between developed and developing countries and those who want to move to a framework which may be more in line with the realty of solving the problem. 

The buzz over Japan’s announcement in the halls at the Moon Palace in Cancun, where negotiators from 194 countries have gathered for the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, started shortly after a plenary session on Monday and continues to reverberate in press conferences and side events. In an announcement that originated in a ministerial level meeting in Tokyo, Japanese negotiators reiterated a position they have been making for a year now: they will not sign onto a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, setting new and more ambitious targets for binding emission reductions among the parties of that treaty beyond 2012, unless the biggest carbon polluters do as well. 

The first commitment period of the protocol started when it went into effect and binds 37 developed nations and the European Union to cut emissions from 1990 levels by a collective 5.2 percent by 2012. The understanding reached in Kyoto was that this first commitment period would be temporary, as a matter of design, only beginning the process of reducing emissions under a legally binding agreement and implementing various programs that could make a global system of emission reductions workable such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows for a system of offsets. 

The expectation has been that parties to the protocol would eventually agree on a second commitment period after 2012 which would set more ambitious targets for reducing emissions consistent with the goals outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other scientific bodies, for achieving some measure of climate safety such as stabilizing temperature increase caused by greenhouse gas emissions at 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) over pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, the fact that the world’s second largest emitter and largest per-capita emitter, the United States, famously never ratified the Kyoto Protocol — the very idea of the protocol was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1997 by a vote of 95-0 — and that it does not require emission reductions from developing countries including the biggest emitters like China and India, calls into question whether the protocol by itself could ever assure climate safety.

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The Japanese reasoning is based squarely on this key problem with the protocol. In that light, can we really blame their decision? Why should they sign onto a second period of binding reductions for an agreement that can never hope to achieve meaningful carbon reductions when it does not include the U.S. and China? A press release circulated by the Japanese government added up the cold but convincing numbers: “… the total emissions of energy-related CO2 from the countries undertaking obligations to reduce emissions under the Protocol account for only about 27 percent of the global emissions in 2008, which dropped down from 42 percent in 1990. Thus, it is not effective as regards to emission reduction obligation or the scale of emissions to be reduced.” 

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In contrast, Hideki Minamikawa, vice minister for global environment in the Japanese environment ministry, noted that the parties aligned to the Copenhagen Accord — the non-binding political agreement delivered in the 11th hour at the U.N. climate summit last year in Denmark — represented 80 percent of global emissions. While some have suggested that the Kyoto Protocol should continue to a second commitment period and be tied to a new agreement based on the Copenhagen Accord, Minamikawa made it clear in an interview with The Guardian that his government did not support such a potentially cumbersome architecture: “We want a single binding treaty,” he said.

Some will conclude that Japan’s decision on the protocol is simply a ploy to shirk their responsibilities on carbon mitigation and assistance with adaptation in poorer countries. But Japan’s pledges and actions to date point to a different conclusion. Japan’s commitment under the Copenhagen Accord is to cut emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, a target which is more stringent than Europe’s current goal. And of the fast start financing announced in Copenhagen last year — for developing countries to provide $30 billion to developing countries by 2012 for adaptation and mitigation — Japan has pledged $15 billion and already implemented $7.23 billion as of the end of September. In comparison, the U.S. delivered $1.7 billion in 2010 and is scheduled to deliver approximately $4 billion by the end of the fast start period. Indeed, it is difficult to see how developed countries could meet the fast start goal without the Japanese contribution. Nor does it appear that the Japanese want to kill off emission trading and offset programs under the Kyoto Protocol. Later this week, Japanese officials will discuss their planned scheme for bilateral offset programs designed in part to keep retain the qualified successes of the CDM.

Reaction from other Kyoto signatories has been mixed. Not surprisingly, the Canadians, who have long since given up on meeting their reductions under the Kyoto Protocol, have endorsed this move. Bill Rodgers, a spokesman for Canadian Environment Minister John Baird, concurred on Saturday that the protocol was indeed ineffective because it does not include the top two carbon polluters. Peter Wittoeck, a spokesperson for the European Union, made it clear that while the E.U. was resolutely undecided on extending the protocol for a second commitment period with a new set of emission reduction targets, the Japanese calculations were correct: “If it is only the E.U. that is under such a commitment without the rest of the world … [then] that would not be a solution for the global climate problem.” In contrast, Bernarditas Muller of the Philippines, a spokesman for the G77, the group of more than a hundred developing countries who often negotiate as a block in these talks, condemned Japan’s announcement: “We don’t want to kill the Kyoto Protocol, so we’re not very happy about it.” 

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China and the United States, in some respects the real targets of ire in this development as neither will ever consent to being bound by the Kyoto Protocol, predictabl
y divided on the issue though they were worried about the same thing: the impact that Japan’s decision could have on achieving some kind of successful outcome at the Cancun summit. 

Su Wei, China’s chief negotiator, joined the G77 in criticizing Japan’s pointed announcement suggesting ominously that a failure to extend the Kyoto Protocol “is one of the crucial issues concerning the success of the Cancun conference.” U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern was worried about a fallout effect of Japan’s decision as well, pointing to its potential impact on the parallel track of negotiations in this process known as the Ad-hoc Working Group on Long Term Cooperative Action (LCA), which has been struggling for three years to create text for a new climate agreement which could either compliment or replace the protocol. The LCA track is currently the only official place in the negotiations where elements of the Copenhagen Accord could be enshrined in a legally binding agreement. According to Stern, it would be “very unfortunate to lose the progress” that could be reached on that track due to this debate.

Reactions from NGOs and the environmental community were almost universally critical but also striking in their predictions of dire consequences based largely on exaggerated assessments of the protocol’s effectiveness.

Mohamed Adow, senior climate change advisor at Christian Aid, was reported as claiming that Japan’s decision “puts the global climate architecture at risk … and violates Japan’s legally binding commitment, turns its back on science, and disrespects the people most vulnerable to climate change.” Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, argued that Japan’s actions, risking the collapse of the Kyoto Protocol, “would leave us with no guarantee that emissions will be reduced.”  

But as a point of fact neither Japan, nor any other signatory party of this agreement, are bound to sign on to a second commitment period under the protocol beyond 2012, but rather only to meet their reduction commitments in the first period. And given the basis of their decision — that the current parties in the protocol cannot hope to set a target for emission reductions in the second commitment period high enough to compensate for the lack of a similar commitment from the world’s two largest emitters — the Japanese are being consistent with hard physics of the matter. The present group of parties bound by the Kyoto Protocol can never guarantee that emissions are reduced sufficiently to protect anyone, including the most vulnerable, because they simply do not account for enough of global emissions.

The reasonable worry about Japan’s actions however is that moving away from a second commitment period for the protocol would signal a move from developed countries altogether away from a system of binding emissions cuts to one of voluntary measures only. After all, the worry many have is that if Japan does not renew the protocol then other parties will follow, and given the implementation rules of the treaty, without a sufficient number of parties, it would not continue as a vehicle for binding emission cuts in the future. This would leave the world without any binding treaty to cut emissions. Reacting to Japan’s decision, Martin Khor, director of South Center, put it this way: “Some developed countries want a voluntary system of pledges, which are not legally binding. We are at a major crossroads, with the future of the climate negotiations at stake.”

The specter here is the emergence of a framework of mere “pledge and review” or “shame and blame” whereby parties are not bound to emission reductions, nor potentially penalized if they fail to meet them, but only committed to the national actions they are willing to take without any international oversight. It is noteworthy that this is also the mistaken fear that many came to after the Copenhagen climate summit last year ended in the creation of a political accord which does not bind parties to reducing emissions but only asks them to inscribe their voluntary measures in a pledge under the accord. What many fail to recognize though is that from the beginning the Copenhagen Accord was designed to be the first step in a two step process which would conclude with a legally binding treaty to finish the skeletal political agreement which was achieved last year.

Similarly, what critics of the Japanese position fail to acknowledge, or simply do not believe, is Japan’s insistence that they are not opposed to a second commitment period of the protocol because they have some problem with binding emission cuts but rather because they do not see the current agreement as either fair or effective. The Japanese claim that they also want to see a next step for a more ambitious agreement like the Copenhagen Accord — ambitious in terms of the number of parties willing to make commitments to it of some sort — and they want it to be legally binding. Again from the government’s official press release: “The ultimate aim is early adoption of a new single legally-binding instrument that establishes a fair and effective international framework with the participation of all major emitters based on the Copenhagen Accord.”

Given Japan’s delivery to date on its emission reductions under the protocol, and its willingness to take on fully half of the $30 billion fast start financing pledge from Copenhagen by itself, the real issue among their critics may not be their commitment to a legally binding treaty but rather the kind of legally binding treaty the Japanese are signaling they want with this decision. 

Ever since the United States rejected the Kyoto Protocol because it divided the world between developed countries, who were required to make mandatory emission cuts, and developing countries, who were not required to reduce their emissions regardless of their emission profile, various parties have been sharply divided over whether it was possible to forge a new kind of climate agreement. On the one hand were countries such as the U.S. who insisted that the Kyoto architecture was unfair to their economic interests given that their biggest competitors like China and India were not bound by such an agreement to bear any costs associated with emission reductions. On the other hand are the bulk of developing countries who argue that they should not be required to reduce their emissions given that the current accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causing this problem were emitted by developed countries and that their development needs outweighed emission reductions for the present time.

But in between these two positions is the physical reality that the Japanese have now publicly recognized: We cannot hope to achieve any measure of climate safety without emission reductions from the largest polluters, both developed and developing countries. This doesn’t mean that small and impoverished nations ought to be bound to emission reductions but rather that the problem cannot be solved without cuts from major emerging economies like China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil. 

In this light, one of the positive developments at Copenhagen was the emergence of an alliance of these parties (the so-called “BASIC” group) with the United States, the E.U., and other developed nations which produced the Copenhagen Accord. While this new division — between major carbon polluters and everyone else — is more the alignment needed to solve the problem it is not yet one that the rest of th
e developing world feels comfortable with insofar as they fear that it could lead to increased expectations for emission reduction from developing countries. 

This week, we can see this in the strident and threatening pronouncements of the ALBA countries, or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (which joins together Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, and others in an anti-Capitalist alliance) who, according to The Hindu, are “demanding a firm commitment from developed nations to the second phase of the Kyoto protocol, putting pressure on the main polluters.”  Unfortunately in the consensus process which governs these meetings, where all 194 parties have a veto on any political or legal agreement, this could spell trouble for the only possible progress expected from these meetings, a “balanced package,” as it is now referred to, of decisions on the building blocks of a climate agreement such as forestry, technology transfer, black carbon, and climate finance infrastructure. According to Claudia Salerno, the Venezuelan negotiator, “If there is no second period of commitment, it would be very difficult to have balanced package in this negotiations.” If this happens then we will see a repeat of the Copenhagen outcome where the ALBA countries blocked the final passage of the Copenhagen Accord as an official action of the conference.   

While negotiators are working without rest to ensure that we do not see the same outcome at this meeting we can only hope that cooler heads prevail. Fundamentally though, if the Japanese decision does effectively end the Kyoto Protocol as a mechanism for reducing emissions it does not mean that we are on a slippery slope to seeing rich countries demanding emission cuts from poor countries. What the Japanese decision may instead mean is that we will finally be free to stop talking about the future of the Kyoto Protocol and move on to discussing an agreement that might actually get the job done.