Pre-Copenhagen Climate Talks Stall Over Whether to Dump or Extend Kyoto

By Patrick Goodenough | October 9, 2009 | 2:25 AM EDT

Masked climate activists protest outside U.N. climate talks in Bangkok, Thailand on Friday, Oct. 2, 2009, (AP Photo)

( - With just under two months to go before a major conference in Copenhagen aimed at delivering a global deal on climate change, a penultimate round of preliminary talks ended in Bangkok on Friday with no sign that a longstanding gap between developed and developing countries will be bridged.

At the heart of the deadlock is the same issue that President Bush cited in repudiating the Kyoto Protocol eight years ago – the fact that developing countries did not face legally-binding curbs of carbon dioxide (CO2), despite some of those countries, notably China and India, being major emitters of the gas blamed for climate change.

Kyoto’s underlying principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” meant in practice that while all countries were expected to take steps to mitigate climate change, only 37 developed nations were given binding emission-reduction targets.

Bush was vilified by environmentalists for his stance, but the Obama administration has not changed the position and says it also does not intend to ratify Kyoto either.

Instead, U.S. officials have been pushing in the Thai capital for the new agreement-in-the-making to include undertakings from all countries laying out how they intend to curb CO2 emissions, in transparent and measurable ways.

Kyoto applied to the period up to 2012 and the Copenhagen conference is meant to produce an agreement on what happens beyond then. Green activists are pushing for much bigger emission-reduction targets and more stringent timetables than those set by Kyoto.

Two weeks of intensive talks involving 180 nations in Bangkok revealed deep discord between developed nations and the so-called G77 and China, a loose coalition of 130 developing countries.

China, which since the Kyoto Protocol came into effect has overtaken the U.S. to become the world’s number one CO2 emitter, wants the framework of Kyoto and its “common but differentiated responsibilities” principle to be retained and extended, saying this was “not negotiable”.

With support from other developing nations, China is arguing that Kyoto offers them the guarantee that wealthy countries acknowledge their historical liability for the problem and their responsibility to act to resolve it.

“This is a problem that has been created by a small minority of countries,” Beijing’s top climate change official, Yu Qingtai, told reporters in Bangkok this week. “The vast majority of the developing countries are victims.”

Yu’s charges that industrialized countries are trying to kill off Kyoto brought a denial from the European Union, which has historically embraced the agreement.

But E.U. spokesman Karl Falkenberg acknowledged that the U.S. was unlikely ever to join Kyoto and said a legal framework needed to be reached that would enable all countries to participate, including the U.S. and big emitters among developing nations like China.

U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer, left, briefs journalists in Bangkok (Photo courtesy International Institute for Sustainable Development)

Pledges, specified and unspecified

Over the summer the U.S. joined its partners in the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries in agreeing to a goal of limiting any average global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius (C), or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial period (around 150 years ago) average temperatures.

“Global warming” proponents say that they are already 0.8 degrees C warmer, and argue that a rise of any higher than two degrees C could have potentially catastrophic effects on the planet.

They calculate that reaching that objective will require industrialized countries to cut emisions by between 25 and 40 percent below 1990 levels, by the target year of 2020.

The E.U.’s 27 members have pledged to a 20 percent cut from 1990 levels by 2020, with the possibility of raising that to 30 percent if others industrialized nations are on board.

In the U.S., cap-and-trade legislation passed by the House of Representatives in June takes 2005 levels as a starting point and sets a goal of reducing emission levels by 17 percent, by 2020. A similar bill, with 20 percent as a target, was introduced in the Senate last week by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

China has not offered any emission-reduction targets, but Chinese President Hu Jintao told a U.N. climate summit in New York last month that his country would aim to reduce “carbon intensity” – the rate at which its CO2 emissions are rising – by a notable but unspecified margin by 2020, from 2005 levels.

Despite the divisions evident in Bangkok, United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer sounded an optimistic note at a press conference Thursday.

“Whatever the atmosphere at the moment, I think significant advances have been made here to get us close to something which can serve as the basis for agreement in Copenhagen,” he said.

De Boer added that for an agreement to be reached at the conference in December, “essential ingredients” were necessary. Industrialized countries must offer “ambitious” emission-reduction targets for the year 2020 and a “serious commitment” to provide financial assistance to developing nations, he said.

De Boer also called for support for the process from “political leaders at the highest level.”

After Bangkok there remains only one final negotiation session scheduled, in Barcelona, Spain from November 2-6. The Copenhagen event is due to be held Dec. 7-18.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow