Climate Talks ‘Hostage’ of Kyoto Debate, Ex-U.S. Official Says

The 195 nations at climate talks in Durban, South Africa, should focus on a voluntary agreement reached last year, not on linking a new deal to the existing Kyoto Protocol, a former Obama administration official says.

United Nations-led negotiations are tangled over whether there should be a second phase of emissions cuts under the 1997 Kyoto treaty after the first round expires next year. The U.S. rejected the accord because it doesn’t require big developing polluters such as China to reduce greenhouse gases.

The European Union says extension depends on whether nations including the U.S. and China agree to forge a new legally binding treaty in 2015. The U.S. says it won’t unless all key issues are worked out first, an unlikely scenario given the current state of negotiations. The U.S. instead wants to focus on the political deal reached last year in Mexico that includes actions from all major polluters through 2020.

“The cost of the current debate over future legal form is that it detracts from the tangible work that could be done now building on the Cancun Agreements,” Trevor Houser, a former U.S. climate negotiator, said in an interview.

“That kind of practical cooperation would help lay the foundation for a future legally binding agreement, but instead it’s getting held hostage because of the debate over the future of the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

Blocking Progress

Critics accuse the U.S. of blocking progress on attempts to craft a new legally binding treaty. World leaders including President Barack Obama failed to agree on such an accord during 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen.

The U.S. says Obama salvaged the climate talks by working with India, China, South Africa and Brazil on a political deal that became the basis for the Cancun Agreements adopted by the UN last year.

While many countries and environmentalists support the Cancun plan as a temporary solution, they say the focus should be on extending Kyoto and working on a plan for a new, stronger legally binding accord.

An attempt in 1992 to reduce emissions through a voluntary regime failed, leading to the creation of the Kyoto Protocol, Union of Concerned Scientists’ Alden Meyer said.

“We don’t need to repeat that history,” he said.

The U.S. supports the idea of a binding treaty as long as it applies “fully to all significant players,” U.S. negotiator Jonathan Pershing said yesterday. The dilemma of how to construct such an accord has been at the center of a negotiating stalemate that’s spanned almost two decades.

‘Constructive Ambiguity’

Edward Cameron of the World Resources Institute in Washington says the current debate over the legal form of a new treaty stems from conflicting views of the Cancun Agreements, adopted by the UN with support of all countries except Bolivia.

Some countries see the deal as a “temporary division until the politics are right to get negotiations back on track toward a legally binding instrument,” Cameron said in an interview. “For others, it’s a completely new road being built.

The “constructive ambiguity” in the Cancun plan allowed all countries to interpret it as they wished, he said

“The problem with Durban is that constructive ambiguity isn’t going to hold for much longer,” he said.

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