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Lessons from the Kyoto Protocol

As the US threatens to scupper another all important climate treaty, we see why the Paris Agreement may not collapse as easily as Kyoto.

By Carlos Fuller, Lead Climate Negotiator, AOSIS

Before the Paris Agreement, there was the Kyoto Protocol, a climate treaty once regarded as humanity’s last hope, but that has now been relegated to obscurity in the shadow of its more illustrious cousin. All but dead and buried, it has been kept alive only in spirit by the 37 countries who held on, even if not legally required to.

I am reminded of the Kyoto Protocol because of the recent entry into force of something called the Doha Amendment. Doha’s new status in essence, belatedly renders the climate commitments covering the last eight years by these 37 countries, legally enforceable post facto. However, even without this legal consequence, those targets were already on track to not only be met, but exceeded. At best therefore, the value of Doha’s entry into force is largely symbolic as a broad political recommitment to multilateralism.

I am also reminded of Kyoto because I see the ways history threatens to repeat itself. I am not superstitious, but for us at the Alliance of Small Island States, who have been in the trenches of this climate fight for 30 years, our memory is long. The US was instrumental in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, only to fail to ratify it at the moment of truth; a blow the treaty never really recovered from. It is doing the same with the Paris Agreement.

Unlike Kyoto however, the Paris Agreement is built on the understanding that we are all in this together, and it will take the efforts of all countries, large and small to ensure our survival. At its heart is the 1.5˚C warming limit, the scientific guardrail that is the very upper limit of warming Small Island States can handle. Science sets the target, therefore it cannot be arbitrated. Kyoto was simply never ambitious enough.

Facilitated therefore by the very structure of the Agreement and the climate change movement it exemplifies, China is positioning itself to fill this leadership void and the US is being forced to stand up and take notice: climate change is on the ballot for the November 2020 US elections, a notion that was unthinkable in the time of Kyoto.  

For the Paris Agreement to truly stand on its own two feet however, the incoming UK COP Presidency must take the bull by the horns in resolving outstanding issues. It must prioritise finalising new carbon market rules. Because the Paris Agreement will never fulfil its ambitions unless we categorically close those market loopholes that stymied the effectiveness of Kyoto. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) for example may no longer be fit for purpose, but we know now how not to repeat its mistakes.

Kyoto and its mechanisms may be dead, but there are institutions created in its time that can live on. We all know that even under a 1.5C pathway, the survival of Small Island States will depend upon how well we can adapt. We must therefore ensure a seamless transition of the Adaptation Fund, and the agreement on markets must include an increase in the percentage of funds it receives from carbon credit sales.

We remember the Kyoto Protocol for what it was: an imperfect deal forged through sheer will under impossible circumstances, and for that alone it should be respected and acknowledged. But now we must move on. When the re-animated Kyoto Protocol naturally expires at the end of 2020 – so it must remain. Ratification by no means legitimises the carrying forward of outdated technical elements such as the CDM beyond 2020. We best honour the memory of Kyoto by being forward-looking and forging ahead unafraid with the Paris Agreement.

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