from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Kyoto Lives!

October 21, 2010

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I’m in India this week for a series of meetings on energy, climate, and global governance, and I’ve been reminded, once again, of how wedded some major countries still are to the Kyoto protocol.

A quick bit of recent history: U.S. analysts (and many U.S. policymakers) spent much of 2009 trying to dream up the best possible successor to the Kyoto protocol. Kyoto itself, they assumed, was essentially in the past as a negotiating issue. (This was a natural extension of the U.S. domestic scene, where Kyoto is irrelevant.) Then they showed up at Copenhagen and were forced to spend much of it debating the future of Kyoto. Indeed many of the procedural issues that made a mess of the conference had to do with how Kyoto would be handled.

This year analysts and policymakers had no excuse for the blind spot. But we’ve still largely persisted in dodging the issue. I hosted a meeting earlier this year in which I asked several talented people to think through how to handle the Kyoto issue; there were essentially no ideas put on the table.

That’s a problem, since as my visit here has reinforced, Kyoto still matters. This will flare up again in Cancun. Part of this is simply tactical: Kyoto implements a strong version of the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, so countries like India benefit from focusing on it, at least insofar as it helps them avoid emissions-curbing obligations. The other issue is deeper: India has a pretty strong attachment to international law, and many Indians bristle at the idea of basically discarding the legal obligations that countries have taken under Kyoto.

Now there are counterpoints to both of these: If a new international arrangement looks good to India, it can abandon the tactic of emphasizing Kyoto. And if that new arrangement is legally binding, it should be comfortable moving on at a level of principle too. But a legally binding agreement isn’t in the cards – which makes this all far more difficult to resolve.

One might further counter that tussles over Kyoto don’t matter because they only affect the UNFCCC negotiations, which are a dead end anyhow. I think that’s wrong. First, the Copenhagen Accord is far from a sealed deal; it still needs to be reinforced through the UN negotiations. Moreover, as appealing as handling much of the mitigation agenda through other smaller forums is, doing that will be a lot easier politically if there’s some basic foundation through the UN.

None of this, of course, leaves me with much of an answer to what to do about Kyoto. The discussion last week in the comments on technology was great. Maybe some readers have thoughts on this considerably more difficult question?

More on:

India

Treaties and Agreements

Climate Change

Mexico

Diplomacy and International Institutions

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