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November 04, 2009

Threats to Kyoto Protocol Endanger Copenhagen & Our Climate

By Justin Guay, apprentice for the Sierra Club Global Warming and Energy Team

Senate Environment aKyoto-_znd Public Works (EPW) committee hearings held on the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act last week have built upon the Kerry/Graham op-ed in the New York Times to provide renewed momentum on domestic legislation - even if the party of no continues to childishly obstruct the process by boycotting committee mark up. Unfortunately, movement in the Senate is being overshadowed by a deterioration of negotiations at the global level stemming from concerted attacks by a handful of countries seeking to kill the Kyoto Protocol and replace it with a “pledge and review” system.

Pledge and review in its most general form repeals any notion of a legally binding deal, allowing countries to instead pledge the level of ambition they deem fit – rather than that determined by climate science. As if this “race to the bottom” in terms of emissions targets were not enough of a threat, it also breaches the Bali “firewall” – the differentiation between industrialized and developing countries that exempts the developing world from binding emissions reductions targets. Differentiation was agreed to under the Bali Action Plan - the outline for the Copenhagen negotiations – under the tenet of common but differentiated responsibility and is central to the international negotiations.

For their part, U.S. and Australia are pushing this system to address the problem of differentiation of advanced developing countries like China and India to ensure an international agreement that can be ratified by the Senate. However, this blunt tool has caused great resentment among the broader set of developing countries. This has brought to the forefront lingering hostility over the long list of promises that the industrialized world has made and failed to live up to. Undoubtedly, advanced developing countries like China and India must take aggressive mitigation actions that significantly deviate from business as usual baselines, but even these must be differentiated from the actions promised by the industrialized world to ensure a level of equity in line with historical responsibility for emissions.

Needless to say, pledge and review has greatly alienated the developing world since it was announced last month in Bangkok, creating a toxic negotiating environment that lead to the walk out of the African group at the beginning of this week’s negotiations in Barcelona. While this was a costly and ill advised tactic – there are only 3 days of negotiations left prior to Copenhagen – it highlights the very real frustration with the overall ambition of the developed countries, as well as the blatant avoidance of historical responsibility embodied in pledge and review. 

The general deterioration of the international negotiations has led to a downplay in the expectations for Copenhagen, epitomized by the Danish Prime Minister’s recent comments that it would likely see a politically, rather than legally, binding agreement. This was reiterated by U.S. Envoy Todd Stern in a House Foreign Affairs hearing on a post Kyoto regime.

To avoid a complete disaster in Copenhagen, it is absolutely vital that the U.S. displays sorely needed leadership by taking pledge and review off the table. Doing so enables Copenhagen to be a step towards a strong international agreement rather than a forced green wash agreement. Negotiators can then focus on key structural elements that will enable a comprehensive final deal including a transparent uniform system of reporting and accounting with robust verification and compliance that builds upon the significant number of developing countries who are proposing strong mitigation actions.

The momentum created by the announcements coming from advanced developing countries like Mexico, Indonesia, India and China and others can not be overstated. In fact, the U.S. is planning a fourth quarter push to ensure that both Chinese president Hu Jintao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are on board for just such a deal. The only question will be whether the administration will reject the Bush era policy of pledge and review and push the U.S. Senate bill creating a “race to the top.” Only then can we answer our children when, in the words of Senator Cardin, they ask us where we were when the world was burning.

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