Bangkok: A Few Steps Farther On a Long and Growing Path

Person walking up long path


The most recent negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change just concluded in Bangkok, Thailand. While some progress toward international climate change action was achieved, the talks were full of mostly minor diplomatic victories on procedural and scheduling issues. Big questions, especially the fate of the Kyoto Protocol and a new global climate agreement, remain unanswered. Meanwhile, worldwide carbon pollution continues to rise.

The Bangkok negotiations lasted from April 3—8 and marked the first session of the 2011 global climate meetings. Governments spent most of their time trying to agree on a schedule of what to decide on in 2011 meetings. So, if you thought climate talks already had been tough to follow, try listening to negotiators negotiate about what they are going to negotiate about later. On the final day, countries ultimately agreed on a workplan for the rest of the year. The two key areas of work are: figuring out if and how to keep the current Kyoto Protocol alive; and continuing to develop a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, one that will involve a larger range of countries cutting their climate pollution.

With Kyoto’s most significant provision – mandatory emissions limits for most high-income countries – expiring at the end of 2012, countries have focused on what to do when that happens. Most of the hundreds of civil society members in attendance stood firm in insisting for a renewal of the Kyoto Protocol as soon as possible, with a likely commitment period of 2013—18 and stronger pollution reduction commitments for countries that already agreed to the original protocol.

Recognizing, however, that countries have already wasted much time, such a second commitment period would not likely be ratified before the current period expires. This, in turn, would leave countries with a gap during which, at least by international law, they can pollute as much as they want.

So, while governments continued to debate how to overcome political and technical challenges toward reaching a second commitment period, they also discussed politically feasible options for bridging such a potential gap between old and new commitments. They did not reach a resolution. The United States would almost certainly not be part of a new commitment period, having never ratified Kyoto nor accepted the obligations that its first commitment period held. Russia and Japan maintained their objection to being part of “Kyoto part two.”

All three countries at least moved much closer to allowing a second period to be realized, even if it is without them. Less than a year ago, such progress seemed unlikely. Even at the last major climate summit in Cancun, Japan and Russia seemed unwilling to allow Kyoto to continue, and other nations were mostly unwilling to craft new Kyoto commitments that did not include all of its original countries. Even with Russia and Japan’s softer tones, governments must still work out many details before a second commitment period is realized.

Kyoto does not require emission reductions from developing countries, and emissions from many emerging economies (and many rich countries) continue rising. So, governments also discussed reaching agreement on a more comprehensive climate treaty, either to replace Kyoto, or operate alongside it, assuming that a second Kyoto commitment period is agreed to. More accurately, delegates decided that they would focus their debates around these options in the remaining negotiating sessions this year. Since they agreed to this agenda only by the final day of the negotiations, little time remained to actually discuss substantive policy issues.

Delegates will pick up where Bangkok left off when they meet June 6—17 for the yearly summer negotiating session in Bonn, Germany. Another, shorter meeting, similar to Bangkok (but hopefully more productive), will occur some time in the fall. Negotiations will culminate in the next major climate summit in Durban, South Africa, November 28 to December 9.

At this stage of negotiations, we do not know whether  government delegates will reach consensus on a second commitment period for Kyoto by the end of Durban, though momentum toward this is at least increasing. Similarly, a brand new climate agreement still seems far off, but interest for it has increased, buoyed by a new spirit of international cooperation developed in Cancun. Unfortunately, climate change impacts are also increasing rapidly, meaning that the path to success grows longer every day.

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