What Happens to Kyoto After 2012?

The UN climate change secretariat released an interesting legal note today laying out what will happen to the  major legally-binding, global treaty in place to address the problem of global warming pollution beginning in 2013.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, countries have agreed to a “first commitment period” whereby most of the developed economies pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.   After 2012, these countries are no longer bound by their commitments and, theoretically, can start emitting greenhouse gases  without regard to their global impact.

There were significant problems with Kyoto; namely, the emissions reductions targets are not adequate enough to stave off dramatic climatic change over the course of the next several decades and major emitters–like the United States, China, and India–are not currently covered by its provisions.

For the past several years, there have been two negotiating tracks going on to deal with Kyoto’ shortcomings.  On the one hand, those countries who have ratified Kyoto have been negotiating to improve the treaty.  But this track–the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments for Annex I Parties Under the Kyoto Protocol–excludes the United States and (currently) doesn’t ask big emitters like India and China to engage in legally-binding reductions.

The other negotiating track–the Ad-Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action Under the Convention–does include the United States, China, India, and other major emitters.   The second track was established in 2007 with the thought that some type of successor agreement to Kyoto would be negotiated and that there would be a seamless transition from the Kyoto Protocol to a new legally-binding agreement.

The second track hasn’t produced much progress, so there is quite a bit of confusion as to what will happen after 2012.  Today’s note doesn’t lay out a very promising scenario.

Here are the highlights:

  • If a second commitment period (with new emissions reductions numbers) is going to begin on 1 January 2013, a final text laying out those obligations really has to be completed by the December meeting in Cancun.
  • Even if a text is agreed upon in December, it still needs to be informally accepted by three-fourths of the 143 countries which are party to the Protocol by 3 October 2012 and then ratified by domestic legislatures by the end of 2012.  This is an EXTREMELY accelerated timetable.
  • Parties could amend the Kyoto Protocol to make it easier for a second commitment period to go into force.  They could create an “opt-out” clause where it is assumed the country will accept the commitment period unless they notify the UN.  This might make it more politically viable for countries to sign on, but there still needs to be domestic buy-in before the treaty is legally-binding.
  • There could be a “provisional” amendment to the protocol with new commitments, but until it is legally ratified, it is essentially voluntary.
  • They could extend the first commitment period for a number of years.  One problem with this is that many countries have expressed a political (not legal) commitment to limit global warming to a 2 degree rise from pre-industrial levels by 2050.  Extending the first commitment emissions numbers won’t reach this goal.  It would also require an amendment to the treaty, which still poses problems with getting the requisite number of countries to ratify before 2013.

None of these options look particularly promising.  So what will happen in 2013?

  • Emissions reductions targets will no longer be required.
  • Countries will not have to submit reports to the UNFCCC on their emissions.
  • Countries will not have to maintain a registry for emissions offsets–a key point for developing countries which can use financing under the treaty for low-carbon developing projects.
  • Emissions trading markets could be disrupted

Essentially, you would have an entire architecture of emissions management–flawed as it is–fall apart.

This legal note was written to give negotiators guidance going into next month’s intersessional negotiations in Bonn.  My sense is that it is a pretty dire document–we’ll see if negotiators think so as well in a couple of weeks.