Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 11 October 2009 

Climate talks in peril after Bangkok failure

The Bangkok climate talks ended badly as trust evaporated after rich countries abandoned the Kyoto Protocol, with developing nations crying “foul” and warning the Copenhagen meeting was in serious peril.


In an astonishing and unfortunate turn of events, the Bangkok climate talks of the last fortnight ended last Friday by taking steps backwards from progress towards this December's Copenhagen conference.

By now, the developed countries should have come up with numbers on how much they commit to cut their Greenhouse Gas emissions after 2012, when the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol (KP) ends, so that a second period can begin in 2013.

But in Bangkok, the developed countries signalled they are quite unwilling to do a second period under the KP and, worse, that they are likely to abandon the Protocol altogether.

This has sent shock waves around the world, and raised the prospect of utter failure in Copenhagen. Not only is Copenhagen's success in jeopardy, but the international climate regime itself, a turn of events that was hardly imagined before Bangkok.

The Group of 77 and China has reacted furiously to the apparent ditching of the protocol.   “We call on the developed countries that are members of the Kyoto Protocol to stand firmly in the KP and to engage seriously in negotiations for a second commitment period,” it said in a statement on 9 October.

“We will also consider the Copenhagen meeting to be a disastrous failure if there is no outcome for the commitments of developed countries for the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.”   

Europe, Japan and America must quickly find a solution that combines their deep emissions cut with fairness towards developing countries, to avert a disaster in Copenhagen, said Ambassador Lumumba D'Aping of Sudan, who chairs the G77. 

The KP had firmly bound the developed countries internationally to commitments to cut their emissions.  It was agreed their emissions would be cut by 5% collectively by 2012 (compared to 1990) in the first period.

The new cut after 2012 was expected to bring the emissions level down by 25 to 40 per cent by 2020 (compared to 1990).  And the talks on this have gone on for three years.

One problem is that the United States pulled out of the KP some years ago. The Bali climate meeting in December 2007 envisaged that if the US did not return to the KP,  it could be dealt with as a special case by binding its commitment inside the Climate Convention, of which it is a member.

Instead of working out this plan, it appears that the other developed countries now want to jump ship from the Kyoto Protocol to join the US in a new agreement.

Unfortunately, this new agreement (with the US seen as the main architect) looks inferior to Kyoto.  Countries would inscribe their national climate plans in an appendix to the agreement.  They would later report on progress made, which would then be reviewed by other countries.

This is a kind of “pledge and review” approach, and much more lenient than the KP model with an internationally-set overall target for developed countries, with specific and binding targets for each country, and a compliance system. 

The developing countries see this as a lowering of the nature of the developed nations' commitments, from internationally binding to nationally determined.  “This is an attempt for a great escape,” remarked China's Ambassador Yu Qingtai caustically at the end of the Kyoto Protocol meeting on 9 October.

The G77 and China's demand is for the developed countries which are KP members to commit to their cuts inside the KP, while the US would make its commitment for a comparable emission cut in a special decision inside the Convention.  This was after all envisaged in Bali.

Another worrying trend in the talks in Bangkok was the attempt to confuse or do away with the clear distinction between the “mitigation commitments” of developed countries (involving binding and deep emission cuts) and the “mitigation actions” of developing countries (which are not expected to undertake absolute emission cuts, but would curb emissions growth, through actions enabled by finance and technology from rich nations).

The developed countries seem to be engaging in a concerted plan to reduce their own commitments while pushing their burden onto developing countries, which are asked to take on more than their fair share.

The US delegation chief, Jonathan Pershing, even said that “advanced developing countries” should take on quantified emission reductions, something that was not agreed nor even asked of them at Bali.

By wanting it all their own way, the rich nations may be jeopardising Copenhagen.

“The train to Copenhagen which is on two tracks is going to be derailed,” warned Su Wei, China's delegation head.  “The KP track is about to be destroyed and its debris  and fragmented pieces lie on the Convention track.  The train to Copenhagen is in peril.  Don't kill the KP and don't derail our Copenhagen train.”

On 10 October, the Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh said the Bangkok talks had broken down and there was a “trust barrier” between the developed and developing world.  He blamed the EU for abandoning the basic structure of Kyoto Protocol and said it was up to the EU to bridge the lack of trust after the Bangkok talks.

“The trust that has broken should be repaired quickly,” Ramesh said.   He warned against what he called the “mistake of the Doha round” of trade talks, which aimed for all or nothing and could still not come to a conclusion.

At Bangkok, other issues such as financial support and technology transfer to developing countries were also discussed, but little progress was made, except for re-organising of the texts.  The gaps in positions were still very wide.