Monday, December 10, 2012

Kyoto Redux

The Parties to the United Nation's Convention on Climate Change just concluded  their 18th annual meeting in Doha. I haven't been blogging about the daily progress of the conference because it's just too depressing. Now that the conference is over, and the smoke is clearing from the hard negotiations, it's worth picking through the achievements, such as they are.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

First, the Kyoto Protocol, which was scheduled to expire at the end of this year, has been reauthorized for another seven years, with a second compliance period. However, only about three dozen countries (including the EU), responsible for only 12-15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, have signed on to Phase 2 of Kyoto, which requires  reductions of 25-40% below 1990 levels. Other major emitters that ratified the Kyoto Protocol, including Russia, refused to sign on to the new commitments, despite the fact that the new treaty permits parties to carry-over excess emissions allowances ("hot air") into the new phase. Russia and other East European countries hold millions of dollars worth of "hot air." However, the treaty limited the extent to which purchasing countries could use the "hot air" to meet their obligations, in order to preserve the environmental integrity of emission reduction targets, and several signatory countries, including most importantly the EU, vowed not to purchase any "hot air." The US, which did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, also did not sign on to the new treaty.

Meanwhile, all of the other features of the Kyoto Protocol, which contributed significantly to its failure as a mitigation treaty in the first place, have been preserved, including the odious Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which allows developed countries to meet their emission-reduction obligations by paying developing countries to reduce emissions (basically, whether they actually do so or not). Fortunately, the CDM's negative impact will be limited when new EU restrictions go into effect next year. Because the EU is by far the biggest purchaser of CDM credits, those restrictions should significantly reduce the volume of CDM projects.

In place of the failed Copenhagen and Durban Accords (from the 2010 and 2011 conferences), we now have a new "Doha Climate Gateway," which is intended to lead to a full replacement mitigation treaty by 2015, five years before the end of the new Kyoto compliance period. But don't hold your breath. We're also supposed to see progress by then on agreements to finance adaptation assistance for developing countries and a compensation fund for countries damaged by climate change. But don't hold your breath on those agreements either. Nor should you stop inhaling oxygen while awaiting commitments by major-emitting developing countries, such as China and India, to binding emission-reduction targets. Their existing promises to reduce the carbon intensity of production already amount to more serious action than the US has promised at the international level.

I may have more to write about the Doha climate talks as more details emerge, but so far every indication is that it's just another signal that the UN process for climate change negotiations has reached a dead end (which it simply delays conceding at each year's meeting). If real progress is to be made on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, it will likely come from outside the UN process, i.e., from "bottom-up," which in the international context means linked domestic policies. We already are beginning to see some action at this level in the recent agreement between Australia's and the EU, linking their emissions trading systems. Slight hope exists that the US might eventually become interested in linking with larger markets (in order to take advantage of economies of scale that could reduce regulatory compliance costs) if (a) the DC Circuit validates EPA's initial spate of GHG regulations under the Clean Air Act, (b) California's own carbon market takes off, and (c) firmer caps are imposed in the Northeast's the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Again, don't hold your breath.

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