China Says Rift on Kyoto Risks Destroying UN Climate Talks

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Steam billows from the cooling towers of Great Energy Alliance Corp.'s Loy Yang coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley, Australia. Australia, which burns coal to produce about 80 percent of its electricity, plans to start a cap-and-trade system in 2015 that allow companies that create lower emissions than their cap to then sell unused permits to other polluters. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

China said a rift with industrial nations over the Kyoto Protocol’s rules on greenhouse gas risks destroying the international response to global warming, raising the chance this year’s talks in South Africa will fail.

Su Wei, Beijing’s lead negotiator, said it’s essential for industrial nations to sign up for another round of emissions reductions under the pact, whose limits expire next year. Japan, Canada and Russia already have rejected extending the treaty. The European Union says it will only take on new commitments if all nations fix a date for adopting a new treaty.

“If we cannot get a decision for the future of the second commitment period, the whole international system on climate change will be placed in peril,” Su said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg and two other news organizations at the talks in Durban. “If the Kyoto Protocol is devoid of any further commitment period, the Kyoto Protocol itself will be dead.”

The treaty is the linchpin of efforts to limit fossil-fuel emissions blamed for damaging the atmosphere. China’s position is key because it’s the biggest producer of the gases and the largest of the developing economies negotiating. While Su said China is open to negotiating with the EU, his comments show little common ground on how to maintain momentum on the issue.

Only ‘Proper’ Law

“It’s not just China that thinks like that,” said Christian Teriete, a spokesman for the Global Campaign for Climate Action, a coalition of 300 non-governmental organizations. “Pretty much all developing countries insist on a second commitment period because Kyoto is the only proper climate law we have -- the rest is voluntary.”

Violent thunderstorms marred the opening of the talks on Nov. 28, and yesterday the World Meteorological Organization said this year is likely to be the 10th warmest ever as greenhouse gas emissions surged to a record. Delegates from more than 190 nations agreed to hold next year’s meeting in Qatar, the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide per capita.

China and India, which have become two of the three biggest polluters since Kyoto was agreed to in 1997, have no requirement to cut emissions under that pact. The U.S. and EU say global warming can’t be stopped without bringing all the biggest polluters into a system of mandatory cuts.

Cuts and Carbon

Asked about a report in India in the Indian IANS that China was prepared to accept binding targets after 2020, Su said, "I don’t know where you got that kind of message."

Su said also that if Kyoto’s limits are allowed to expire, there’s no sense in maintaining Clean Development Mechanism, the world’s second biggest carbon market which was worth $1.5 billion last year, according to the World Bank.

"If there are no targets to implement, what is the utility of having the CDM mechanism?" Su said.

Masahiko Horie, an environment envoy from Japan whose country’s rejection of Kyoto limits almost derailed last year’s talks, said in an interview that the protocol is obsolete because it covers 26 percent of global emissions.

“Durban is really a fork-in-the-road moment,” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. “Do we go back to the pre-Kyoto days when countries did whatever they wanted and were under no pressure to raise their level of ambition to what the science demands?”

Support for China

China’s demands were echoed by Grenada’s envoy, Dessima Williams, who speaks for the Alliance of Small Island States, a coalition of island nations at risk of disappearing as sea levels rise. She said Kyoto is “the anchor of the whole process.” She said the EU’s request for countries to set a date for adopting a new treaty may delay progress.

“Everything needs a plan,” Williams said in an interview in Durban. “But a road map with a date that takes us away from the urgency of decision making in Durban? No.”

China and other developing nations made non-binding pledges to reduce emissions at the UN talks in Cancun last year, where developed nations also made pledges that are voluntary. Su said it’s too early to say whether China will be willing to accept legally binding commitments after 2020.

Mandatory emissions targets would be required under the EU’s proposal. The 27-nation bloc wants a deal by 2015 for all nations that would be implemented by 2020 at the latest. Without it, the EU said it won’t allow an extension of Kyoto. China said that suggestion goes back on a plan set out in 2007, where the EU said it would work on extending Kyoto.

‘Shifting the Goal Posts’

“We think the EU is just shifting the goal posts to another place,” Su said. “We are willing to consider accommodating the concerns of the EU so as to assure a real, legally binding, second commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol. Post-2020 is still far away and we cannot spread ourselves too thinly.”

Su said that any consideration of actions to be taken after 2020 should be held after a planned review of the level of ambition of emissions pledges, to be conducted from 2013 through 2015, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next full assessment of the science of global warming, due by 2014.

Even if a second commitment period isn’t agreed upon, some elements of Kyoto would live on, including international systems for measuring and reporting greenhouse gases, said Jonathan Grant, director of climate policy at the global accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in London.

‘Not the End’

“We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Grant said in an interview. “If Kyoto falls, that’s not the end of the UN climate negotiations, providing progress is made on the Cancun agreements, including the institutional arrangements.”

Negotiators in Durban aim to set up institutions agreed to in Cancun, including a Green Climate Fund to channel aid to developing nations, a mechanism to transfer clean technologies to poorer countries and a body to advise them on ways of adapting to climate change.

Su said there’s no sense in agreeing to a new road map in Durban when countries haven’t yet completed the tasks set out in a 2007 document called the Bali Action Plan, which envisaged a new set of targets for industrialized nations.

“We cannot do things halfway, then discard that course and take another one,” Su said. “That’s not an efficient and successful way of doing things.”

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