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“We’re Not Very Excited About Kyoto,” the US Says

Neither Are People’s Movements in the South – But for Different Reasons

The big question here in Durban during the UN climate negotiations (COP17) is: Will the Kyoto Protocol live or die? The halls are filled with young people waving posters that declare “Save Kyoto,” delegates wearing t-shirts saying “I heart Kyoto,” and rallies by Greenpeace, Tcktcktck, the Sierra Club, and other NGO groups defending “the KP,” as it’s called in the lingo.

But let’s step back for a moment and look at this love for Kyoto. The United States never ratified the agreement, and its position at the COP, today as ever, is summed up by a statement from US Envoy Jonathan Pershing a few days ago: “There is nothing for us to do here.”

Ironically, one of the slogans of Global South social movements – whose positions are as far from the US government as you can possibly imagine – is quite similar.

Wilfred D’Costa, National Secretariat of the Indian Social Action Forum, a member of Jubilee South, says. “One of the criticisms of the KP from left groups and South groups is, it didn’t have sufficiently high standards. Whereas, for the US, the standards were too high.”

“We find it very difficult to accept the solutions that are being proposed within the COP,” says Wally Mene of Timberwatch, South Africa. “Over the last several years, the term ‘false solutions’ has emerged to describe these proposals; and we believe that civil society in fact has the solutions that are more appropriate to the problems we are facing.”

Members of La Via Campesina, the largest federation of peasant farmers in the world, regularly attend these summits but usually hang back, encamping nearby. They are here in Durban with a delegation of hundreds of African farmers, and have led two marches in the streets to make their presence known. But they rarely enter the official venue because this, as they see it, would lend legitimacy to a corrupt process.

In other words: There is nothing for them to do here.

Meanwhile, in the halls of Durban’s International Convention Center the well-meaning masses of sharply dressed NGO attendees eating bad sandwiches and slurping foamy cappuccinos from cardboard cups appear to be more concerned with ‘saving Kyoto’ than with saving the actual victims of the climate disaster. And if ‘saving Kyoto’ is their raison d’etre, then there is quite a lot for them to do here.

The whole mission of the COP process over the last several years has been to establish a way forward for the Kyoto Protocol, whose ‘first commitment period’ ends in 2012. Some countries are pushing to renew Kyoto, with improvements. But many others  – specifically the US, Canada, Russia, and Japan – want to see it abandoned altogether. Still others – the EU among them – argue that, at best, we need a new global agreement to develop to new global agreement.

Yes, you read that right: both the Copenhagen Accord and the Cancun Agreements, along with some document that may come out of Durban, are largely place holders.

To use the metaphor of a global family, the effort has been to keep the dying Kyoto Protocol on life-support long enough to sort out who gets the family silver, and who pays the funeral expenses.

This may come as a shock – given that the entire United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change is built on the foundation of Kyoto, and that I’ve blown more than my share of jet fuel across the sky flying to South Africa to be here for a grueling two weeks of eighteen-hour workdays, and that I’m losing a lot of sleep over what is happening here – but frankly I don’t give a flying squirrel about the Kyoto Protocol.

I’ll explain.

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 and entered into force in 2005. The major feature of the KP is that it sets binding targets for 37 industrialized countries and the European community for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to an average of five percent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.

These targets have not been met. In fact, emissions have gone up wildly.

Problem number one: the science tells us we need cuts more on the order of 50 percent by 2015, and 90 percent by 2050. So Kyoto’s most ambitious binding targets – which the developed countries have done so much to dodge like a mutant virus – are a storm in a teacup. A nice gesture, but a false promise.

A paper I was handed earlier today called the KP “a cool, child-like notion.” And this was from someone who wants to save it. The paper, by the way, was titled “Can the Carbon Markets Save the World?”

Which leads us to problem number two: the KP is designed to save the market, not the planet.

Diligent readers will recall that, back in 1997 when the agreement was under construction, the US played its usual intransigent role by refusing to adopt the agreement – until, famously, Al Gore flew into Kyoto at the last minute and said the US would sign on one condition: the agreement needed to contain ‘flexible mechanisms’ that would allow emissions reductions to be done through the market.  That is, reducing emissions through tradable pollution credits.

The world buckled under the weight of Gore’s pressure tactic and Kyoto adopted a strong market orientation. The US then pulled a fast one and refused to ratify – and the entire ‘climate regime,’ from then on, was dominated by market-oriented approaches.

D’Costa of Jubilee South told me, “The major criticism of Kyoto is that it as always promoted business. That was completely ludicrous, because the markets created the climate crisis. This is why we call for climate reparations, or payment on the climate debt.”

D’Costa continued: “Climate debt goes far beyond the market regime to ask for a new regime, where developed countries who have poisoned the atmosphere with CO2 have to pay for it. They have looted from the commons too long.”

Still, developing countries continue to push for binding emissions reductions in Kyoto. They see that they are being drowned and smoked out by the wealthy and their markets. Because the UN process is designed to give every country a voice, this insistent demand by global South countries to actually have the rich world reduce emissions, rather than to do so on paper only, has become, for the rich nations, a bit of a drag.

Now, as Canada, Japan, Russia, Mexico, and other countries prepare to dump the Kyoto Protocol, Jonathan Pershing, the lead US negotiator, says: “We’re actually not very excited about Kyoto.”

What a surprise.

Well, me neither, thanks very much. I’m for climate reparations.

Jeff Conant, writer and social justice activist
Jeff Conant is author of A Community Guide to Environmental Health and is Communications Director at Global Justice Ecology Project.

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