Which Road Will Cancun Take? Fr. Seán McDonagh

An announcements by Japan on the eve of the UN Conference on Climate Change at Cancun that the government of Japan will not agree to second Kyoto Protocol  but would opt for “single treaty” approach took people by surprise.  The announcement seemed strange on a couple of accounts. Firstly, the Kyoto Protocol was conceived and agreed on at the Kyoto Climate Change meeting in December 1997 after a lot of hard nose negotiation.

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, almost every country in the world recognised that burning fossil fuel was increasing the level greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, which in turn was warming the planet.  Even then scientific bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1PPC), and many National Academies of Science were warning that global warming would lead to severe weather patterns, a rise in sea-levels endangering tens of millions of people living on coast lines, and cause the extinction of vast numbers of species.  Despite this clear scientific advice, the Convention members could not agree on mandatory limits to carbon emissions mainly the petrochemical, automobile, steel and utility companies had successfully lobbied the administration of President George Bush senior.


Everyone knows that, if mandatory limits are not set for using energy forms which are so central to modern affluence, no one will take the pain that cuts will involve.  So, for the next five years nothing happened on the regulatory front.  Finally, at the UN Climate Change Conference at Kyoto in 1997, countries, including the U.S. accepted legally binding commitments to lower their carbon emissions by 5.2% to 7% below their 1990 levels by 2012.  It took environmental, development and citizens groups to achieve this first step.  In fairness the Japanese government played a pivotal role in getting the Kyoto Protocol (KP) up and running.  Now, 13 years later it is signalling that it will not support an extension of the KP beyond 2010, even if it meant isolating itself at the UN itself. This is amazing for the country that gave birth to KP. It is also a clear breach of the multilateral process pursued by the UN in COP. Japan made the announcement before the negotiations even begun.  At the very least, this item should have been tabled for discussion at Cancun.

So, what is going on?  Many times during the past 30 years when I wanted to understand a complex issue in the justice area, I turned to the writings of  Martin Khor, currently the Director of the South Centre in Singapore.  Happily I saw on the daily schedule for November 30th 2010,that Martin was one of the speakers at an afternoon  conference.

I was not disappointed.  In 20 minutes Martin explained the political context of Japan’s decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol because the U.S. is not   covered by KP binding commitments.  Furthermore, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are also reluctant to commit to KP second period.  Though it supported the KP and promoted it for over a decade, the EU is also lukewarm towards KP.  This means that Norway is the only rich country ready to stand firmly behind KP.  Understandably, Southern countries are unhappy that rich countries, which have enjoyed a high standard of living historically because of its use of fossil fuel in the 20th century, are now trying to wriggle out of legally, binding commitments.


The US, the biggest polluter by far, isn’t covered by KP. In the Copenhagen Accord it agreed to make a pledge to reduce GHG emission so that the average global temperature will not exceed 2 degrees Celsius.  In a Climate Policy Brief which Martin Khor distributed he quotes “top scientists in a new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which shows how disastrously off target a voluntary system will be. “instead of cutting their emissions by at least 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020 as required (or below 40% as demanded by developing countries), rich countries will actually increase their emissions by 6% in a good scenario (based on upper end pledges and without the use of loopholes.”

According to the UNEP report, when the GHG emissions from developing countries are add to the figures from the above pledges, it will give rise to an average increase in global temperatures of between 2.5 to 5 degrees Celsius before 2,100.  This is a recipe for catastrophe.  Cancun is a vital cross roads. Either we  continue down the KP road of mandatory, legally binding GHG reductions to be completed in 2012 in Durban, or we take the soft option of  mere pledges which will lead to disaster.

South Centre website www.twnside.org.sg


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