Questions on Fate of Kyoto Tie Up Climate Talks

| Sat Dec. 4, 2010 3:39 PM EST

The first week of negotiations in Cancun are drawing to a close, with little movement on what has emerged as the two most contentious issues: the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, and whether there will be progress on the components of a new deal.

Japan said this week that it would not commit to a second period of the Kyoto Protocol, the original climate treaty whose first round of pledges end in 2012. Canada and Russia have also signaled that they are not very interested in a new commitment period, though work toward a second period has been an integral part of climate talks and was included when the original treaty was crafted in 1997. The countries have argued that they don't want a new commitment period that does not include countries like the US and China.

Ending Kyoto is a deal-breaker for most developing nations, as the accord is the only legally binding global treaty on climate and because it includes mechanisms to help fund mitigation and adaptation efforts. The first commitment period ends in 2012—and if there's no resolution here about whether to follow through on a second period, it would leave a decision to next year's COP in Durban, South Africa. Bolivia, Venezuela, and other developing countries say that talks will break down if there's not a renewed commitment to Kyoto. "We reject an outcome that does not respect the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol with deep emission targets," said Meena Raman of the Third World Network, an civil society group representing developing counties.

Its fate is certainly haunting the meetings here so far. "The biggest battleground issue is whether whatever comes out of here sustains or kills the Kyoto Protocol—or at least delivers a mortal death blow, then it staggers forward and dies in Durban," said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute in Boston.

How to resolve it isn't really clear. "How do you fudge this and come out with an outcome?" said Jake Schmidt, International Climate Policy Director Natural Resources Defense Council. "If developing countries are saying no Cancun outcome without clarity on Kyoto Protocol, how do you get out of that one?"

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, argued Thursday that countries could reach some sort of middle territory on the issue—though no one really seems to be sure what that would look like. "It's clear that Cancun will neither confirm nor kill a second commitment period [of Kyoto]," said Figueres. "Rather it's a goal of reaching a middle area where all groups will at least be able to live with."

And that's just the Kyoto track of negotiations. There's a separate track, called the "longterm cooperative agreement" track, that is working on formalizing a new deal on climate that includes the US and major emerging economies, neither of which are part of Kyoto. Conversations over there have also been slow-going so far, and whether there will be significant resolution here is equally unclear. The US has maintained that it wants a "balanced package" that moves all the parts of last year's accord forward—and that without the full package, it won't endorse movement on specific components. The US has so-far held firm on that, though other countries—particularly developing countries keen on seeing a climate fund advanced in Cancun—have balked at this argument.

"The way forward is not simply to work on those issues that are important to some countries but not important to others," US climate envoy Todd Stern said in a press briefing Friday afternoon (via the New York Times). "That doesn’t make sense."

Saturday starts the second stage of negotiations, with top envoys like Stern arriving to pick up the talks. The working groups are expected to release negotiating texts for both tracks today, which will then be considered over the next days.