Thursday, December 17, 2009

Making tracks

Talks continue to sputter along here with (officially) one day left to go. I have heard from a number of sources that the expectation is that it will continue into Saturday even though it was only scheduled to last until Friday. Morale is pretty low among the delegates I have seen. The train ride home to Sweden last night (where many of the NGO delegates are staying) was full of downcast people from all over the world silently looking down at their feet throughout the 30 minutes it take to commute to Malmo. Getting kicked out of the Bella Center and negotiations, talks breaking down and the protests inside and out seems to be taking its toll.

There was little substantive news today. Things seem to be back on track and people are talking once more but there is little indication as to whether they will be successful. It is hard to really get a good gauge on where things are breaking down, there are so many fault lines between groups of countries it could be any number of issues, some of which we have talked about before. One of the things that seems to be a particular focal point as things come down to the wire is what people sometimes refer to tangentially as the "one-track solution" or "two-track solution".

It took me a while to get this straightened out in my head but I think I can explain what this is all about. The Kyoto Protocol is ever present in every single meeting we have seen, sometimes in the details raised, always in spirit. Part of this is the fault of the U.S., who remains the only country involved in the 192 nations party to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change not to have ratified the legally binding agreement that it helped to write in Kyoto back in 1997. The only one.

While President Bush publicly stated that the agreement would be bad for the U.S. economy and deserves to get credit for the role he played, in fairness, the Senate is ultimately the legal body that ratifies all international treaties and could have done so with or without the President's blessing. Kyoto after all was written in 1997 when Clinton was in the White House.

What makes Kyoto different is that it is an international treaty that legally obligates signatory industrialized countries (those that have signed on) to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases whereas previously they had only been encouraged to do so. As such, it is the only international legal instrument that requires countries to lower their emissions. However, the devil is ever-present in the details.

A critical aspect agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol is the phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities” which distinguishes what wealthy, industrialized countries (called Annex I countries) are obliged to do from what poorer, developing countries (non-Annex I) are encouraged to do. The rationale for making a distinction between these two groups is that the historical emissions of greenhouse gases that have caused this problem of global warming in the first place came from Annex I countries. They (we) are the primary reasons why this is a problem in the first place, therefore they (we) should pay the majority of the costs. While all nations have the "common" responsibility to reduce their emissions and mitigate climate change, Annex I countries have a "different kind" of responsibility since they caused this mess in the first place.

Most of the developing countries are worried that the Kyoto Protocol, which many in the west have declared obsolete or dead, is going to be scrapped in Copenhagen and replaced by a whole new document. This would effectively eliminate the only international agreement with legally binding provisions for emission reductions. A wholly new text would also doubtless tinker with the “common but differentiated responsibilities” language that distinguishes industrialized from developing nations.

The so called one-track solution is preferred by some Annex I nations and especially the U.S. It would allow the Kyoto Protocol to lapse and be preempted by a wholly new agreement. The two-track option would retain Kyoto as an existing framework to which new agreements would essentially be appended. It is a continuation of the basic framework agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol that defines the quantifiable obligations of Annex I nations to reduce their emissions and transfer technology and financial support to developing countries.

For the U.S. it is an opportunity to re-write the portions of the K.P. it disagrees with and start anew. For the developing world, it raises the possibility of losing everything they feel they had gained through the Kyoto Protocol.


  1. Mike and other AAG delegation. The Oxford delegatoin (which I led) arranged to have a lecture theatre at the Copenhagen Business School for Research NGO (RINGO) refugees from Bella Center. It has streaming video, wireless and a nice cafe. Students and faculty from Oxford, Yale, ANU etc have been hanging out there from about 11am each day. The CBS is right at the Fredericksburg Metro station. Oxford Geography still has 4 geographers 'inside' the Bella Center - students Simon Billett on the UNDP delegation and Juan Arrendondo on the Mexico delegation and Oxford staff Heike Schroeder and Yadvinder Malhi (we got tickets in the lottery). I gave up yesterday and came back to London but was in Copenhagen since last week. Oxford blog at
    Diana Liverman

  2. Is it really time to move though? With ClimateGate showing how their was a cabal to limit the debate and the Russians claiming data was changed to fit the argument, failure here can give us time to reexamine the situation and make smart changes later on.


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