The UN climate talks currently taking place in Doha will decide the future of the Kyoto Protocol, which is the world’s only legally binding climate treaty.  Although the protocol’s impact on global emissions has been limited, it is still necessary to keep the policy infrastructure associated with it intact.  CAP has been following the future of the protocol at Doha and outlines below the key issues and probable outcomes at the meeting.

First and second periods
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change aims to effect emissions reductions that will keep global warming within a 2°C increase over pre-industrial levels.  The Kyoto Protocol is among its tools.  The first period of the Kyoto Protocol (KP1), which set binding targets for emissions reductions for 37 industrialized nations and the EU, will end this year.  A main goal of the current meeting of the parties to the UNFCCC is therefore to implement a second period of the Kyoto Protocol (KP2), which will serve as a bridge between KP1 and the international treaty that will emerge from the Durban Platform and take effect in 2020.

Participants and bystanders
Countries including Australia, Norway, Liechtenstein, Croatia, Ukraine, Iceland, and Switzerland have committed to binding targets in a second period of the protocol.  The EU has committed as well.  Australia, for example, has pledged to reduce its emissions at least .5% by 2020, and the EU has pledged to reduce its emissions at least 20% by 2020 (both from the base year 1990).  Although Japan, Russia, Canada, and New Zealand were signatories of KP1 (Canada later announced that it would never attempt to meet its agreed upon target), they are declining to participate in KP2.  In addition, KP2 will not include the US, which signed but never sought to ratify the treaty in the Senate.


A number of questions about KP2 need to be addressed during the meeting, such as a) whether the duration of KP2 should be five or eight years, b) whether developed countries that are not signatories should be permitted to participate in the protocol’s market-based mechanisms, and c) whether countries should be permitted to transfer emissions credits from the first to the second period.  Blocs of countries including the Alliance of Small Island States, Least Developed Countries, and the African Group, which represent “100 countries and 1.4 billion people who are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” released a statement on 26 November arguing that the duration of KP2 should be five years, so as to make the targets more ambitious.  It also argued that credit carryover should be curtailed and that only parties to the protocol should be permitted to participate in the carbon market it creates.  Artur Runge-Metzger, representing the EU in a press briefing on 28 November, summarized the position of developing countries on the last point:   “You cannot just enjoy the nice things from the Kyoto Protocol but not commit with the legally binding emission reduction budget for the period 2013-2020.”

For and against KP2
The Kyoto Protocol is of course inadequate in isolation as a defense against climate change.

It applies to only a fraction of global carbon emissions, as the countries with the highest emissions (the US and China) and the bloc with the highest emissions (developing countries, as represented by the so-called Group of 77) are not bound by the protocol.  Some, like the United States, never ratified the treaty, but the bulk of the emissions not covered are from developing countries that in fact are members of the protocol but are not required to reduce emissions.  Moreover, the reductions achieved by Kyoto countries in the last period may have been due less to the agreement than to factors such as “the collapse of greenhouse-gas producing industries in eastern Europe and, more recently, the global economic crisis” (Schiermeier, Nature, 28 November 2012).

There are a number of reasons, however, to support KP2.  1) Although the Kyoto Protocol alone will not avert the 4- to 6-degree warmer world we are on schedule to inhabit without increased mitigation efforts(see the new World Bank and IEA projections reported in the Guardian, 26 November), it is merely one track of what should be a “multiple multilateralism” method to achieve climate security.  And it’s the only international and legally binding agreement we have on climate change, at least until 2020.

2) Many representatives from developing countries believe that Annex I countries should “take the lead in undertaking deep binding emission reductions in the short-, mid- and long-terms that reflect their historical responsibility for global emissions” (see Submission from Argentina, Bolivia, China, Congo, Dominica, et al., 27 November).  As such, KP2 will help show the good faith that is necessary to keep developing countries involved in climate negotiations.  Representing Brazil, Andre Correa do Lago said, “If rich countries which have the financial means, have technology, have a stable population, already have a large middle class, think they cannot reduce [emissions] and work to fight climate change, how can they ever think that developing countries can do it?  That is why the Kyoto Protocol has to be kept alive.”

3) The protocol creates a global carbon market.  Under its Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), projects in developing countries that contribute to climate stabilization, such as reforestation or renewable energy projects, earn credits that can be bought by rich countries and applied to their emissions targets.  More than 5000 projects have been approved, and these are projects that likely would not have been undertaken without the program.  According to Andre Correa do Lago at a press briefing on 28 November, CDM projects have resulted in “more than a billion tons of CO2 equivalent.” The program is therefore “not only a market mechanism for projects; it is an effective way of reducing emissions[GT1] .”  We might add that it is also an effective way of financing climate adaptation, as it is the main source of support for the UNFCCC’s Adaptation Fund.  If the CDM remains stable through a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, then it could be used to serve the new global treaty that is now being negotiated in a new track at Doha.

The US is formally only a bystander in the current Kyoto negotiations, as it never joined the treaty.  But it has an interest in seeing the protocol continue into its second period, with its CDM intact, so that it may serve as a bridge to and a basis for a globally binding treaty and a working carbon market in 2020.

by Gwynne Taraska

Gwynne Taraska is a visiting research associate at the Center for American Progress working with the energy and climate team. She is also the director of research at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University.