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Japan, Russia Under Pressure to Renew Climate Vows, De Boer Says

Japan, Russia and Canada face “significant pressure” to extend carbon-reduction pledges, and their refusal would jeopardize the Kyoto Protocol, the UN’s former climate chief Yvo De Boer said.

The three nations, which agreed to legally binding cuts in greenhouse gases under the 1997 accord, have indicated they won’t sign up for extended obligations after their initial commitments end this. They did agree at last year’s climate talks to work toward a new deal that would take effect in 2020 and include the biggest emitters, especially the U.S. and China.

“Japan, Russia and Canada will face significant pressure to change their positions,” De Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change until 2010, and now global climate change adviser at KPMG in Amsterdam, said in an interview this week. Their refusal could alienate developing nations and even the European Union, he said. “If the EU opts out, what is left of the Kyoto Protocol but an empty shell?”

De Boer, who will be in Doha next week for the 18th annual climate summit, said a lack of clarity in last year’s agreement is likely to muddy negotiations as about 200 nations reconvene. While envoys made “great progress” at last year’s talks, agreeing to forge a new climate deal by 2015 to take legal affect from 2020, they didn’t clearly define the legal nature of national pledges, he said.

“The Durban agreement is unclear in terms of the obligations countries will make, a bit like a couple agreeing on a relationship without it being clear if the purpose is marriage, or just to live together,” he said.

Broken Promises

This year’s conference also needs to specify how national vows to reduce emissions can be enforced, and what happens to emitters that fail on their pledges, De Boer said.

Japan may agree to a second term of Kyoto without promising binding emission reductions, Akihiro Kuroki, an adviser to the government, said last month in Bangkok. He cited the Fukushima nuclear disaster as one reason Japan can’t promise reductions.

If Japan needs to use more fossil fuel, it should revise its climate pledge and stick to it, rather than try to submit a target without a commitment, De Boer said.

The negotiations should address rewards for keeping climate promises, as well as penalties for failure, De Boer said. Access to global funding might be an incentive for reaching climate targets, while access to funds or global markets could be denied to underachievers, he said.

Climate Demons

Even with the possibility for disappointment, the backdrop for this year’s talks is more support for climate action, De Boer said. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, which caused an estimated $37 billion of damage earlier this year in New Jersey, have put the climate issue back on the map, especially in the U.S., he said.

“In the U.S., measures to address climate change used to be demonized,” De Boer said. “Now, more Americans understand it’s a real issue, and it needs to be addressed.”

Still, De Boer doesn’t predict a bigger U.S. commitment to climate action this year. The U.S. is among the majority of nations suffering from what he calls the ambition gap.

“I doubt any treaty that tries to place legally binding obligations on the U.S. would make it through the Senate,” he said. Enforcement at the national rather than international level is more likely to be successful, he said.

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