Published online 9 October 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.996

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Climate talks stumble in Bangkok

UN negotiators clash over how to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

The latest round of global climate talks closed in Bangkok on Friday with little concrete progress on the big issues and renewed strife over fundamental legal questions about how to structure an agreement.

The long-running dispute centres on whether a new climate agreement should be structured as a follow-on to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change or as a separate amendment to the original 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Negotiators have ducked the question thus far by forming two parallel negotiating tracks, but the issue must be addressed by the December climate summit in Copenhagen.

In Bangkok, European Union (EU) officials argued that the easiest path forward is to structure a single agreement outside the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States never ratified. But developing countries, which are not bound to reduce emissions under Kyoto, see the protocol as the starting point for all discussions; the United States could then be tied in via a separate mechanism.

Temperatures rising

Tensions boiled over on 7 October, when leaders of the G77 group representing developing nations walked out of a meeting, accusing the Europeans of trying to break earlier agreements by sabotaging the Kyoto Protocol. "They keep saying, 'No, we are not trying to kill the Kyoto Protocol', but in effect that is what they are doing," says Lim Li Lin, a researcher who works with developing countries at the Third World Network, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Penang, Malaysia. "This really threatens to derail the Copenhagen conference."

A spokeswoman for the European Commission, Barbara Helfferich, stressed that the EU remains committed to the Kyoto Protocol but is looking for a legally binding agreement that includes commitments from the United States and, at a minimum, advanced developing nations. "We have been very strong supporters of the Kyoto Protocol, and we are well on target to meeting our Kyoto commitments," she says. "We have also been quite clear: we are aiming for one document."

Although the first commitment period under Kyoto is set to expire in 2012, the G77 says parties to the protocol are required to negotiate future commitments. Moreover, the group accused industrialized nations of trying to water down their commitments by collating national pledges in a loose framework that lacks enforcement and compliance mechanisms. "This is simply unacceptable," the G77 said in a statement.

Sore point

Although the dispute in many ways centres on how to deal with the United States, US negotiators have not taken a position, knowing that the Kyoto Protocol remains as unpopular today as it was in 1997 when 95 senators voiced unanimous opposition to the agreement.

If countries participating in the Kyoto Protocol want to negotiate another commitment period in addition to a new global climate agreement in Copenhagen, "God bless 'em", says Todd Stern, the US chief climate envoy. But Stern says it is "completely false" to suggest that anything short of Kyoto or another Kyoto-style agreement would be nonbinding, weak or insufficient.

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"All of the major players, developed and developing, kind of get it and are moving forward at a national level," he says. "The additional step that we need to be able to make is to have those essentially national actions internationalized, if you will, and that's what we are working on."

United Nations climate chief Yvo de Boer acknowledged the dispute but said the "underlying spirit in this process remains constructive". He called on negotiators to report back to their respective leaders before the next meeting in Barcelona next month — the last before Copenhagen — and get a mandate to resolve the outstanding political issues. 

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