The officials from around the world who will gather in South Africa on Monday to convene the latest round of U.N. climate negotiations are facing an uncomfortable fact: The global pact that has dictated greenhouse-gas targets since 1997 may no longer be relevant.
The mandatory targets of the Kyoto Protocol cover less than a third of the world’s carbon output. Major emitters are not bound by it. And, increasingly, the world is relying on a patchwork of measures rather than a universal treaty to lessen the impacts of global warming.
Countries that have reduced their greenhouse-gas emissions, and those that have not.
The Kyoto agreement won’t die altogether in Durban; it may be extended for another five years without binding commitments from industrialized nations while programs for international carbon offsets are preserved as a way to compensate for emissions.
Delegates to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change will focus largely on technical details, such as how to administer a future fund to help poor nations adapt to global warming and how to transfer clean technology to developed nations.
But the debates over concrete policies to cut greenhouse-gas emissions over the next decade are happening in places such as the Australian Parliament and California’s Air Resources Board.
James L. Connaughton, who chaired the Council on Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush, said Kyoto’s global, top-down strategy has been replaced by a more incremental approach to tackling emissions.
“The situation has never been weaker for that vision” of a global approach, said Connaughton, now executive vice president for corporate affairs, public and environmental policy for Constellation Energy. “On the other hand, there’s been quite a lot of progress bottom-up, country by country, in terms of setting reasonably ambitious goals and time frames” for cutting greenhouse gases.
In 1997, nearly 200 countries — including the United States — forged an agreement that aimed to cut industrialized nations’ global emissions 5.2 percent compared with 1990 levels by the end of 2012. But 14 years later, the binding targets cover countries that account for just 27 percent of the world’s carbon output. That’s because the United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the agreement did not cover major emerging economies such as China and India.
Nonetheless, many countries and regions are pressing ahead with strategies to curb their carbon emissions. Australia imposed a carbon tax on several industries that takes effect next year and will transition to a carbon-trading system in 2015.
Several developing countries are adopting what are known as “nationally appropriate mitigation actions.” Mexico is considering legislation to establish a domestic carbon market while developing rules for the cement industry and providing incentives for low-income residents to buy energy-efficient homes. Colombia is working on plans to scrap its aging and polluting freight trucks, promote renewable energy, increase energy efficiency in construction and expand rapid bus transit.