Global Climate Regime: The Challenges from Kyoto Protocol to Paris Agreement

(University of Nigeria) – This essay examines the challenges to agreeing on the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and implementing its terms. It also examines why it took so long to agree on its successor. It notes that the challenges to Kyoto Protocol centre on the difficulty in agreeing on a regime which is considered effective by parties to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but at the heart of this is the contestation over efficiency and equitability of Kyoto Protocol. These disagreements centred on questions of distributive justice, reciprocity and economic rationality. The paper further argues that reciprocity was pivotal to formulating its successor–the Paris Agreement. However, the success of the Paris Agreement will depend on the level of confidence parties have in other parties to reciprocate remaining committed to meeting their pledged targets.

Climate change arguably is the world’s most controversial environmental issue  (1). The fact that climate change transcends international boundaries have made it a global political issue thus measures for combating it require collective action of international stakeholders (2). However, getting all stakeholders to agree on how to combat it is a major challenge (3). This paper examines the difficulties to agreeing on the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 and implementing its terms and why it took so long to agree on its successor.

This paper argues that the challenges to Kyoto Protocol centre on the difficulty in agreeing on a regime which is considered effective by parties to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but at the heart of this is the contestation over efficiency and equitability of Kyoto Protocol. These disagreements were forged through paths of distributive justice, reciprocity and economic rationality. The paper further argues that reciprocity was pivotal to formulating its successor–the Paris Agreement. However, the success of the Paris Agreement will depend on the degree of confidence states have in other parties to reciprocate remaining committed to meeting their pledged targets. The paper starts off with why it was so difficult to agree on the Kyoto Protocol then moves on to the difficulties in implementing its terms. Finally, it examines why it took so long to agree on its successor.

The Kyoto Protocol is an offshoot of UNFCCC with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration in the atmosphere in Annex I countries by 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012 (4). Unlike UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol aims to achieve a legally binding emissions reduction by industrialised countries (1). The GHGs covered by the Kyoto Protocol are Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), Carbon dioxide (CO2), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), Methane (CH4), Hydro fluoro-carbons (HFCs) and Nitrous oxide (N2O) (4).

Studies indicate that the factors that impede reaching agreement on the Kyoto Protocol centres on two issues. First, contestation over emission reduction targets and timetable for meeting these targets and secondly, the strategies to achieve the targets (4,5,6,7).  One underlying inference from these studies is the fact that there was different orientation among parties that are ‘rationally-charged’ and those that are ‘justice-seeking’ on how best to make Kyoto Protocol an effective regime. In this regard, Less Developed Countries (LDCs) and the European Union (EU) were seeking for a climate justice arrangement. The United States (US)–led JUSCANNZ (Japan, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) group was seeking for an economically rational initiative albeit irregularities in scientific evidence of the reality of climate change heightens US scepticism of Kyoto Protocol.

The EU favoured legally binding reductions in GHG emissions before the end of 1997 beyond 2000 from 1990 levels by at least 7.5% in 2005 and 15% by 2010, however, the JUSCANNZ group, Organisation for Economic and Development Cooperation (OECD) countries opposed it (1). Instead, US proposed stabilising emissions of six Kyoto Protocol GHGs at 1990 levels by 2008–2010 for all Annex I countries (1). These disagreements run through the Conference of Parties (COP) from the first in Berlin (1995) to Marrakech, Morocco in 2001 (8,9,10).

The opposition of EU proposal by the JUSCANNZ group was based on two premises. First, that reducing emissions will have unfavourable ramifications on their economy because it is cost-inefficient (6). In this respect, it is argued that Kyoto Protocol commitments will cause Gross Domestic Product losses (3) and there was uncertainty about the cost of meeting Kyoto Protocol targets. For example, a study indicates that the annual cost of a 35% reduction of CO2 emissions would cost the US between plus 20 and minus 150 billion dollars (11).

Secondly, the exclusion of LDCs from emissions reduction notably Brazil, South Africa, India and China (BASIC) makes the Kyoto Protocol inequitable (6). The rationale for this argument is that China in particular with 16% ranks second to the US (22%) on the world list of highest global CO2 emissions in the 1990s (12). China is currently the highest global CO2 emitter with 28.21% while US is15.99% in 2016 (see Fig. 1). Also, US argued that 80% of the world population is in LDCs and they contribute substantially to global emissions thus their exclusion is a distributive injustice (3).

Fig. 1. Percentage global CO2 emissions (2016). Source: Adapted from World Resource Institute (WRI) 2014 and Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) 2014 (13).

From the above arguments, it is evident that JUSCANNZ were rationally-charged while EU and LDCs were justice-seeking. Justice provisions became characteristics of the Kyoto regime because while the developed countries are primarily responsible for climate change due to their historical emissions (14), the LDCs bear the burdens more (15).  Scholars have justified the exclusion of LDCs from emission cuts based on this ground (16,17,18,19).

Contrarily, some authors argue that developed countries should be excused for ignorance of the effect of their historical emissions (20,21). Consequently, Schüssler argues that juxtaposing emissions with some grievous historical events that were carried out with full awareness of their harms such as the Nazi genocide is unfair (21).

Another challenge was disagreement on the strategies to achieve emissions reduction targets.  The US advocated for carbon sinks and emissions trading such that countries that can exceed their emission targets can sell their excesses to countries that cannot meet their targets (5). Australia advocated for a differentiated emissions targets while other parties proposed that emission trading should go in pari passu with emission reductions (22). The EU considered US proposal as good by jettisoned it because it would apportion targets to countries that have already reduced their emissions by 30% such as Russia and the former Soviet bloc (1).

As the treaty provides, the Protocol shall enter into force on the ninetieth day after the date on which not less than 55 Parties to the Convention, incorporating Parties included in Annex I which accounted in total for at least 55% of the total carbon dioxide emissions for 1990 of the Parties included in Annex I, have deposited their instruments of ratification, acceptance, approval or accession” (Article 25) (23). Thus, because parties whose emissions constitute the bulk of the total global emissions were on the sidelines at Hague and Bonn conferences where parties were to agree, the treaty’s legitimacy was in a state of limbo (24). The US withdrew from the pact, while the Umbrella Group (Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, Norway, Ukraine, Japan, and Russia were reluctant to ratify Kyoto Protocol (25). From a rational theory perspective, the non-ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by the JUSCANNZ and Umbrella groups demonstrates the arguments of realists and neoliberal functionalists that, states are self-serving and maximises utility as such they seek Pareto-optimal solutions to collective action problems (15,26).

The UNFCCC had to be amended to allow carbon sink and unrestricted emission trading which spurred JUSCANNZ and Umbrella bloc to ratify the Protocol except for Russia (6). The amendment was forged through the Bonn-Marrakech Accord adopted at COP-7 in 2001 in Marrakesh, Morocco following from a meeting in Bonn earlier that year (5). Russia’s emissions accounted for 17.4% of the global total at 1990 level thus crucial to achieving the 55% target (27). Russia, however, ratified Kyoto Protocol following EU acceptance to support its admission into the World Trade Organisation bring it into force in 2005 and by mid-2007, 173 countries had ratified it except US (1).

Some mechanisms were designed to achieve cost-effective emission reductions such as CDM, International Emissions Trading (IET) and Joint Implementation (JI) (28). In this light, Babiker et al. argued that parties face difficulties in agreeing what confines of the use of the CDMs, and what other limits might be obligatory in choosing projects or in the particulars of trading across different fronts or among gases would be (1). Despite the flexibility, these instruments offer for cost-effectiveness, global emissions continued to rise (see Fig. 2) even among the BASIC group (28) even though China and India house over 69% of the CDM projects (29).

Also, given that the US had no emission reduction commitments, the bulk of global emissions were still not accounted for by the Kyoto Protocol. Thus, the Paris Agreement (PA) key provision– Intended Nationally-Determined Contributions (INDCs) forged through reciprocal pledges of emissions reduction which brought the US, China including other antagonists of the Kyoto Protocol and LDCs into the regime (30) demonstrates that it is better to recognise norms in international regimes within the context of the principle of ‘reciprocity’.

Source: The Statistics Portal (31)

International regime theorists argue that norms should not be morally binding obligations but minimal rules of ‘reciprocity’, ‘coexistence’, and standards of behaviour (15,32).  In the realm of international law, reciprocity–mutual responsibility is a suitable yardstick for behaviour which can spur cooperation among sovereign states (33,34).

The favour of reciprocity against differentiated responsibility principle is the reason Paris Agreement did not face oppositions like Kyoto Protocol. As Ostrom argued, reciprocity is one of the three factors that spur collective action among rational actors (35). However, the theory of reciprocity might not explain why US wants to exit the regime despite the commitment of the BASIC group. Thus, the argument that US rejection of the Kyoto Protocol stems from the fear that if it cuts emissions without BASIC group doing same would jeopardise its position as a global economic power (6,36) requires further explanation.

Implementation of Kyoto Protocol terms was challenged by domestic politics, private sector bottlenecks and incomplete agreements on some aspects of Kyoto Protocol.  Domestic politics hindered Kyoto Protocol implementation because parties will have to domesticate the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol into national laws. There are many examples, but the famous is US Congress adoption of the Byrd–Hagel Resolution in 1997 before Kyoto Protocol was adopted banning US government from ratifying any climate change treaty that can undermine US economy and excludes LDCs from emissions reductions (3).

Private sector bottlenecks can be seen from the perspective of companies in Annex I countries manoeuvring and opposition to emissions cuts through various means including lobbying legislators (6). Thus, most parties did not comply with the provisions of the Compliance Mechanism enshrined in Article 4 and 12 of Kyoto Protocol which mandates parties to submit annual national GHG inventory for scrutiny thus obscuring the truthfulness of their commitment to meeting their targets (25). As Pflieger argues, this resulted in many countries not meeting their Kyoto targets, but empirical studies say the contrary as we shall see later (28).

Furthermore, many aspects of Kyoto Protocol was still unresolved by the time it came into force in 2005. For instance, there was still disagreement on the resolution of compliance, the making of the boards and committees required to oversee diverse requirements of the protocol in the first commitment period (2005–2012) (5).  Also, there was no concrete agreement on the flexibility mechanisms (i.e. CDM, JI) (37).

Consequently, most studies argue that the Kyoto Protocol failed to achieve its goals (7,28,38,39). For example, Rosen argues that Kyoto Protocol is an institutional failure and that it was a wrong solution at the right time that sets back climate change solution by two decades (7). Conversely, some empirical studies indicate that the Kyoto Protocol has a significant reducing effect on CO2 (40,41,42) and CH4 emissions (40) in countries that ratified it.

It is important to clarify that those reductions in GHG emissions represent just a tiny fraction of global emissions. Nevertheless, international regimes do not become effective in the first instance and can be dynamic. Even though Kyoto Protocol had its shortcomings, it provided a platform for renegotiation of a new and perhaps better treaty. Although its successor–the Paris Agreement has no blueprint to achieve its objectives the fact that the countries which have been antagonistic ratified it demonstrates an improvement in the regime.

The difficulties to agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol will now be examined.  First, there was disagreement on whether there should be a new protocol or an extension of the Kyoto Protocol. In this respect, the Bali Action Plan was aimed at either revising the Kyoto Protocol or designing an entirely new protocol that is ‘all–inclusive’ (43) due to the uncertainty about what will happen when the first commitment period ends in 2012 (44,45).  At the 2009 COP-15 in Copenhagen, parties could not reach an agreement due in part to the fact that LDCs favoured an extension of the Kyoto Protocol whereas the developed countries, OECD countries and initially the EU favoured a new protocol (46). The non-binding Copenhagen Accord however established that Kyoto Protocol will continue (47).

Secondly, the timeframe of the revised or new protocol was a bone of contention. However, parties agreed that either of the two would encompass lasting objectives for emissions cutback and action-oriented mitigation, adaptation, financing, and technology farther than 2012  (48). Another problem was the disagreement on whether the revised or new protocol should be legally binding or voluntary (1). While developed countries especially the US wanted a voluntary commitment to emission reduction, LDCs preferred a legally binding pact (49).

Also, there were contestations about whether LDCs should reduce emissions or they should be given aids as well as the nature of the aids. In this regard, US advocated for the reduction of emissions by developing countries. In fact, there was a faceoff between the US and the BASIC group at COP-15 which led to the conference ending in a deadlock (49). Also, there was disagreement on whether there should be a balance between climate mitigation and adaptation (1).

Furthermore, there was suspicion among LDCs parties following the disclosure of a secretive ‘Danish text’, which was prepared to serve as a replacement of the official document in the face of deadlock during negotiations at COP-15 (50). Nevertheless, the disagreements left some positive imprints on the negotiations. First, it included 1.50C– 2.00C global temperature limit to entice small island states which is a significant target in the PA. It also served as a lens through which conflicting parties could view global warming as a problem that requires a reciprocal solution (48).

Consequently, these imprints pave the way for making progress at subsequent COPs in Cancun, Mexico in 2010 and Durban, South Africa in 2011 culminating in the Paris Agreement in 2015 (48). Nonetheless, the progress was reinforced by the reciprocal political agreement between China and US to both reduce emissions and later incorporated into the Paris Agreement (49). The roles of non-state actors are equally important; they served as implementers, experts and watchdogs (51). However, Canada withdrew from the pact in 2012. The Canadian government argued that its withdrawal would save the country about $14 billion penalties (52) thus re-echoing the economic rationality earlier mentioned.

The failure of the Paris Agreement to achieve a legally binding pact underscores Rosen argument that Kyoto Protocol was a drawback to climate solution which should have been adopted in 1997 (7). However, it counters Robert’s argument that US hegemony on climate politics is on the decline (53). US total refusal to agree to the Paris Agreement except for the BASIC group to accept emissions cuts lends credence to it. Nevertheless, the planned exit of US from the Paris Agreement further buttresses my criticism of (7,28,38,39) position that Kyoto Protocol is a complete failure because had the Paris Agreement been legally binding, US would not have the latitude to exit without penalties.

US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement could be seen as a betrayal of trust and a knock on its reputation. As Ostrom argued trust and reputation are two critical factors that spur rational actors into collective action in social dilemma situations, which are pivotal to BASIC group’s agreement to cut emissions (35). Thus, even though almost all countries have submitted pledges (54), the success of the Paris Agreement will, however, depend on the degree of confidence states have in other parties to remain committed to meeting their pledged targets.

Overall, this paper examined why it was so difficult to reach agreement on the Kyoto Protocol and how to implement its terms as well as why there was a delay in agreeing on its successor. The easy demonstrates that at the heart of these difficulties lie the questions of distributive justice, reciprocity and economic rationality. It argues that reciprocity was critical to formulating its successor–PA. However, Paris Agreement leaves much to be desired not least the planned exit of US. Thus, the success of the Paris Agreement will depend on the degree of confidence states have in other parties to reciprocate remaining committed to meeting their pledged targets.

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Cletus Famous Nwankwo is a Graduate Assistant in the Department of Geography at the University of Nigeria.

 

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