Kyoto and after: A guide for the perplexed

Delegates from around the world are meeting in Nairobi to discuss climate change. chinadialogue asks Elliot Diringer what the Kyoto Protocol means for China – and what we can expect of any future agreements on global warming.

chinadialogue: How has the political attitude to climate change evolved since 1997?

Elliot Diringer: In many countries, political support for addressing climate change has grown significantly since 1997. A principal reason is that the scientific consensus on climate change has grown stronger. Scientists are now agreed that the earth is warming, in large because of the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Also, there is growing evidence that global warming impacts, such as melting of glaciers and changes in ecosystems, are occurring faster than predicted. Economists also have developed a better understanding of the economic risks of climate change. A recent review by Sir Nicholas Stern, the United Kingdom’s chief economist, concluded that strong action to reduce emissions would cost approximately 1% of global GDP by 2050, but if action is not taken, the impacts of climate change could reduce global GDP by 5% to 20%. While political support for action is growing, it must become much stronger, particularly in the United States and in the major emerging economies, in order for governments to undertake the actions necessary to avoid dangerous climate change.

cd: What has the Kyoto Protocol achieved?

ED: Under the Kyoto Protocol, most industrialised countries (not including the United States and Australia) have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. These countries have developed policies to reduce their emissions. The most significant of these policies is the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, which limits emissions from 12,000 power plants, factories, and other facilities across Europe. The Kyoto Protocol also established the Clean Development Mechanism, which creates opportunities for developing countries to benefit by contributing to the international climate change effort. However, the emission reductions to be achieved by 2008-2012 are only a small fraction of the reductions that will be needed in the long term.

cd: Why does China have no emission reduction commitments under the Protocol?      

ED: The international climate effort began in 1992 with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Convention recognises that countries bear different levels of responsibility for climate change and have different capacities to address it.  It established the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” and specified that developed countries should “take the lead” in addressing climate change.  Accordingly, at the start of the Kyoto negotiations, it was agreed that only developed countries would have targets in the Protocol’s first commitment. Stronger action will also be needed in developing countries in order to achieve the steep reductions in emissions needed to avoid dangerous climate change. Many in developed countries believe that in the future developing countries also should have commitments, although they could be of a different type than those of developed countries.

cd: What is the Clean Development Mechanism?  

ED: The Clean Development Mechanism, or CDM, was established under the Kyoto Protocol to benefit both developed and developing countries. Under the CDM, projects in developing countries that reduce or avoid greenhouse gas emissions generate “credits” that can be sold to developed countries to help them meet their Kyoto targets. This benefits developed countries by allowing them to meet their targets at a lower cost. It benefits developing countries by attracting investments and technologies that contribute to sustainable development.

cd: How much has China benefited from it so far?

ED: China currently hosts more CDM projects than any other country. These projects are projected to generate 395 million tons of emission reduction credits worth nearly US$3 billion by 2012.  They include projects to expand wind power, hydropower and biomass energy; improve energy efficiency; promote reforestation and improved agricultural practices; and capture landfill gas and HFCs (industrial gas). There are more wind power projects than any other. However, projects to reduce HFC emissions have generated the largest number of credits (over 70% of China’s CDM credits).

cd: What is meant by “historical responsibility” for emissions?

ED: Climate change is caused by the gradual accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gas emissions remain in the atmosphere for a long time. For example, carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, stays in the atmosphere for about a century. Thus, a country’s contribution to climate change reflects not only its current emissions but its cumulative emissions over many years. For instance, from 1850-2000, the United States produced about 30% of global carbon dioxide emissions, while China produced about 7%. According to some estimates, the cumulative emissions of developing countries will match those of developed countries around 2065.

cd: Why do many in the United States and other developed countries believe that China and major emerging countries also must have climate commitments?

ED: Global greenhouse gas emissions must decline by 60% to 80% this century to avoid dangerous climate change. Although historically developed countries are responsible for the majority of emissions, developing country emissions are growing very rapidly and within a decade or two will exceed those of the developed countries. If action is taken only by developed countries, total emissions will continue to grow and global warming will worsen. Consequently, developed countries will be reluctant to commit to stronger action in the future unless there is also some type of commitment by major developing countries.

cd: What is the significance of this month’s meeting in Nairobi?

ED: The meeting in Nairobi is the annual gathering of climate change negotiators from the 189 countries that are parties to the UN Framework Convention. At last year’s meeting, in Montreal, governments launched two processes (one under the Convention and one under the Kyoto Protocol) to consider future steps in the international effort. Those processes will continue in Nairobi but will not reach any conclusions there. Major decisions on future commitments are not expected until 2008 or later. Negotiators will also discuss other issues in Nairobi, including steps that can be taken to help countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.

cd: What kind of agreements are we likely to see in the future?

ED: At this stage, it is very difficult to predict what types of agreements governments might reach on future climate commitments. In order to be effective, future agreements must deliver action by all the major economies – as they account for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. However, the circumstances of these countries vary widely. Accordingly, the international framework for action must be flexible; it must allow different countries to take on different types of commitments appropriate to their circumstances. At the same time, it must be binding enough so that countries will have confidence their counterparts are contributing their fair share to the overall effort.

cd: What factors are likely to shape future agreements?

ED: In order for countries to commit to stronger action, they must be confident that the agreements are consistent with their national objectives. All countries will want to know that the agreements do not impede their economic growth and development. Other priorities include reducing poverty, strengthening energy security, and providing modern energy and transportation services to the millions who do not now enjoy them. Governments will want future agreements to be cost-effective – achieving emission reductions at the lowest possible cost. Finally, agreement will be possible only if each party believes it is fair.

cd: What is the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate?

ED: The Asia-Pacific Partnership, or APP, is an initiative to promote clean technologies that can help address climate change while meeting development needs. APP was proposed by the United States and includes five other countries – China, India, the Republic of Korea, Australia and Japan. Private sector representatives from each country also participate. Eight task forces have been formed to develop action plans in different sectors, including electricity, cement, steel, and aluminum. The action plans call for studies, information exchanges, and demonstration projects.

cd: How is it different from Kyoto?

ED: The partners describe APP as complementary to – and not a substitute for – the Framework Convention and the Kyoto Protocol. The primary difference is that APP does not include commitments. It aims to promote cooperation among the public and private sectors through voluntary actions. It is not designed to create a common policy framework.

cd: What could it potentially achieve?          

ED: APP could potentially make an important contribution to the climate effort. Technology is a critical ingredient and much more work is needed to develop and demonstrate some of the technologies that will be most helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, efforts such as APP can only be part of the solution. Experience has shown that available technologies are not always deployed in the marketplace. Policies are needed to give the private sector incentive to employ new technologies. That is why governments must agree on a policy framework through a forum such as the UN Framework Convention. Also, the success of APP will depend heavily on the level of funding provided. At this stage, Australia has promised $100 million and the U.S. administration is seeking US$52 million from Congress. These initial sums are very modest, and future funding is uncertain.

Elliot Diringer is director of international strategies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. He is a veteran environmental journalist and has also worked under the former US president Bill Clinton as deputy assistant to the president and deputy press secretary.