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Commitments Are Running Out

Possibilities for new global climate treaty are slim

by Cheryl Hogue
August 8, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 32

Credit: NASA
Earth, from space, showing Asia, Australia, and part of Africa.
Credit: NASA

At the end of next year, the only legally binding international commitments for reducing greenhouse gas emissions will end. When and whether they might get renewed—or expanded to include emerging economies with rising emissions, such as China, India, and Brazil—is anyone’s guess, given the state of global negotiations.

What is almost certain is that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will increase, even though virtually every country in the world has agreed that those levels need to come down to avert human-caused climate change.

Commitments by 37 industrialized countries under the Kyoto protocol will expire on Dec. 31, 2012, though other parts of the treaty addressing emissions trading and calculating emissions reductions will not. The section of the treaty set to expire calls for industrialized nations to collectively lower their emissions 5% from 1990 levels over the five-year period of 2008 to 2012. Although the U.S. was a key negotiator of the Kyoto accord, it never signed on to the deal, which faces fierce opposition from coal- and oil-state politicians.

For years, international negotiators have attempted to hammer out a second round of commitments under the Kyoto protocol. They were seeking a seamless transition to the new deal, with no lapses after the 2012 deadline. To this end, they were supposed to finish a new binding treaty in December 2009 during a summit in Copenhagen. But those talks almost collapsed and wound up producing a nonbinding accord (C&EN, Jan. 11, 2010, page 27).

Talks have continued since Copenhagen. Last year, they produced deals on protecting forests and creation of a fund to help developing countries transition to low-carbon-emitting energy technologies and adapt to the effects of climate change (C&EN, Dec. 20, 2010, page 10). But diplomats remain at loggerheads over whether emerging economies with rapidly rising emissions will take on commitments similar to what most industrialized countries have been doing under the protocol.

Negotiators have held two sessions of talks so far this year. Another is scheduled for the fall, and the 2011 talks will culminate in December at a major meeting in Durban, South Africa.

No one realistically expects the gathering in Durban to produce an agreement with new emissions-lowering commitments for industrialized countries under the Kyoto protocol. Nations currently obligated to reduce emissions under the Kyoto treaty are split in their negotiation stances. Canada, Japan, and Russia have announced they won’t commit to a second round of cuts. But the European Union, a longtime supporter of the Kyoto protocol, is game to sign up for more emissions commitments, says Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s climate action commissioner.

However, the EU wants concessions in return for its commitment to further emissions reductions, says Jennifer L. Morgan, director of the climate and energy program at the think tank World Resources Institute. Those considerations might well include an agreement for countries to launch negotiations on a new treaty that includes commitments by emerging economies to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, Morgan says. She sees a possibility for diplomats in Durban to agree on the need for some sort of new climate-change pact and a deadline for getting it negotiated.

But exactly what will emerge from the Durban meeting is unclear, says Jennifer A. Haverkamp, director of the international climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group.

Haverkamp suggests that for now, the most effective strategies for cutting greenhouse gas emissions may not arise from the international negotiations. Instead, major strides in emissions controls are expected to come about through domestic programs, she says. For instance, many countries’ energy and national security plans involve greater efficiency and less reliance on imported fossil fuels. The development of clean energy technology sectors will further limit emissions, Haverkamp says.

Growth in national and regional carbon markets, spurred by the Kyoto protocol’s reliance on emissions trading, are also leading to emissions cuts, Haverkamp says. For example, the EU has a carbon market, as does New Zealand. Australia is now considering legislation to create a carbon market, she says. Recently, Australian and New Zealand finance ministers announced that they hope to link the carbon markets of their countries, she adds.

Although global climate negotiations remain important, Haverkamp says, “they will not be able to achieve the really significant commitment to reduce global emissions that are needed” to stave off climate change. This is largely because the U.S., historically the world’s largest emitter, can’t come to the talks with a firm commitment that is backed up by Congress, she says. Lack of action by the U.S. makes it difficult for other major emitters to make a global commitment, she says.


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