Letting Go of Kyoto

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This commentary was originally published by Nature

A preoccupation with binding commitments blocks progress in the global effort against climate change. It’s time to correct course, says Elliot Diringer.

When governments gather for another round of United Nations (UN) climate change negotiations later this month in Durban, South Africa, they face a familiar thicket of issues. Yet for many – and, no doubt, for headline writers around the world – one stands above all the rest: the survival or death of the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto’s emission targets expire at the end of 2012, making Durban the last chance to set new targets in time to avoid a ‘commitment gap’.

Kyoto will likely emerge from Durban alive, but just barely. This should not be cause for alarm. While the protocol remains an important emblem of multilateralism, it has become, in reality, more of an impediment than a means to genuine progress. More important than ensuring Kyoto’s long-term survival is building something better to take its place.

Durban affords an overdue opportunity to honestly reconsider what it is we can look to the UN climate process to deliver, and when. With the start of the Kyoto negotiations 16 years ago, the international community decided that legally binding commitments were the answer to climate change. A binding-or-nothing mentality has held sway ever since, and the result often has been ‘nothing’.

Although it has been obvious for some time that most of the developed world is unwilling to one-sidedly assume new binding targets, many developing countries will arrive in Durban insisting on precisely that.  Without a compromise, the outcome this time may be less than nothing. It might, in the worst case, be the unraveling of the entire enterprise.

The more sensible course is an incremental one. Modest successes were achieved at last year’s climate-change negotiations in Cancún, Mexico. The parties should build on that with further steps to strengthen the regime; they should also declare their intent to work toward binding commitments, while acknowledging that this will take time.  Meanwhile, governments and climate advocates must work at home to build domestic support for strong national action.  Without that, future international commitments will mean little, binding or not.

In Durban, governments will again be challenged by the same two fundamental issues that dominated at the very start of the global climate effort two decades ago. One is governance: Is the best approach a binding top-down treaty with sanctions for non-compliance, a loose bottom-up arrangement with countries free to define their own voluntary commitments, or something in-between? The second is fairness: How is effort against this quintessentially global challenge equitably apportioned among countries whose degrees of responsibility and capacity vary so widely, and are continually evolving?

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