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CLIMATE CHANGE: Uncertain Future of Kyoto Protocol Alarms Green Groups

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 4 2011 (IPS) - With just seven months to go before a pivotal U.N. climate change summit in South Africa, green groups are raising the alarm here about the future of the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only international treaty that mandates most industrialised nations to cut their environment polluting greenhouse gases (GHG) to save the planet from overheating.

“Talks on the future of the Kyoto Protocol are becoming more urgent,” Meena Raman, a senior policy advisor at Friends of the Earth International, a global green lobby, told IPS. “Parties have been mandated under the protocol to negotiate a second and subsequent round.”

The worry stems from the lack of commitment by the developed world to throw weight behind a new round of time-bound and deeper cuts of GHGs during U.N. climate change talks underway here. The meeting here marks the first of three U.N. climate change conferences, in the lead up to the Durban COP17 summit in late November.

Since last December’s U.N. climate change summit in Cancun, Mexico, negotiators from the developed world have been “dodging their responsibilities” as the clock runs out on the protocol’s first deadline, Raman explains. “This is evident at these talks in Bangkok, and there is a danger of the Kyoto Protocol unravelling.”

“This is what is outrageous about the negotiations since Cancun,” she added. “There is an attempt to replace the legally binding international treaty with a voluntary pledge and review system by the developed world.”

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which entered into force in 2005 after nearly a decade of negotiations, is a cornerstone of the U.N.’s international climate change architecture – the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The protocol and UNFCCC require 37 industrialised nations and the European Community to reduce their GHG emissions by five percent, measured against 1990 levels, by 2012.

Climate change experts are viewing the Durban summit as the pivotal moment to determine the second and more significant phase of the protocol. Such pressure arises out of the failure of the two U.N. climate summits – in Cancun in 2010 and in Copenhagen in 2009 – to achieve substantial, binding commitments from the developed world with regard to their emissions cuts after 2012.

This has prompted the chief administrator of the UNFCCC to talk about a looming “gap” in the world’s international environment regime, which could emerge if new internationally-binding commitments are not in place before the clock runs out on the existing, time-bound commitments made by the developed countries under the first phase of the protocol.

“Governments have to resolve the fundamental issues over the Kyoto Protocol,” Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, told reporters Monday. “The first period expires in 2012 and a gap looks increasingly difficult to avoid.”

“Governments need to figure out how to address this issue and how to take it forward in a collective and inclusive way,” she added. “Resolving the issue will create a firmer foundation for a greater collective ambition to cut emissions.”

These are words that industrialised countries such as Japan, Canada and Russia are unlikely to warm to, despite being parties to the international treaty. The governments from all three countries opposed a new round of binding GHG cuts even before climate change negotiators from nearly 190 countries arrived in the Thai capital for the current round of talks, Apr. 3-8.

The U.S., still the world’s largest emitter of GHG per capita, continues to remain a stumbling block as well. Having refused to ratify the protocol, Washington’s climate change diplomat Jonathan Pershing said here Sunday, that the U.S. government was against a structure of top-down rules that “someone else established”.

According to green groups, the world needs to slash GHG emissions 40 percent by 2020, and 95 percent by 2050 to ensure the planet’s temperature does not rise two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial mark – which experts say could cause environmental havoc. Environmentalists want developed nations to take the lead in the new rounds of cuts after 2012.

The Nobel Peace Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called for global emissions cuts of 25 to 40 percent by 2020.

In fact the emission cuts already made by countries across Europe under the first phase of the protocol are not the way forward, cautioned Tove Ryding, the climate policy coordinator of Greenpeace International, a global environmental lobby. “We have not seen a fundamental shift; we have not seen an energy revolution.”

Europe’s success towards the five percent cuts by 2012 had more to do with “the [2008] global financial crisis, which caused emissions to go down because production went down,” Ryding explained in an interview. “European countries also bought carbon credits on the carbon market rather than cut emissions by greening of their economies.”

Any attempt by the developed world to turn their backs on the protocol after 2012 will prompt a strong reaction from the developing world, warned Tim Gore, policy advisor on climate change for Oxfam, a British humanitarian agency. “Developing countries are increasingly saying, if you don’t want to commit under the protocol, then withdraw from it,” Gore said. “That will have legal implications and implications on the foreign policies of these developed countries.”

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