Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

It was about 4am when the Argentinian diplomat overseeing efforts to strike the world’s first legally binding climate agreement called a temporary halt to the talks. He was worried that a fierce dispute between the United States and developing nations over emissions trading could “blow up” prospects for a landmark deal to curb global warming.

So, after 10 days of intense negotiations involving thousands of delegates in Japan’s ancient capital of Kyoto, meeting chairman Raul Estrada Oyuela suspended the committee session and huddled with key players in an attempt to prevent the collapse of the talks. Some translators had already headed home after the original deadline passed.

“We never had any back-up plan,” recalls Joanna Depledge, who gained a close-up view of the Kyoto Protocol’s make-or-break moment as a member of the United Nations’ climate secretariat.

“That was partly because Estrada said if you open up the slightest chink of light to the possibility of a Plan B then that will take the pressure off to reach agreement.”

She adds: “We really had not slept properly for 36, 48 hours. It was a real sense of negotiation by exhaustion.”

December 11, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of negotiators finding a way through those differences and adopting the Kyoto Protocol, which for the first time committed 38 developed countries to collectively cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 5% on 1990 levels by 2012.

Many of those involved say it was the deal that was politically possible at the time and it paved the way for what followed including the recent Paris Agreement. However, scientists warn that countries still have not embraced the level of ambitious action required to contain the most damaging impacts from climate change.

‘The make-or-break article

Envoys from 161 countries had descended on the Kyoto International Conference Center to thrash out the final form of the climate treaty in the winter of 1997. All up, there were 9,850 registered participants including regional representatives, observers, non-government organizations, and journalists.

During the final night of the conference, which dragged into December 11, delegates aired their differences about the idea of emissions trading – or allowing the buying and selling of emission allowances to help countries meet their broader commitments.

“This was really the make-or-break article because we knew that the US absolutely had to have emissions trading in the protocol,” Depledge says.

“On the other hand the developing countries, especially India, were extraordinarily opposed to this. They saw it as parceling out the atmosphere, turning the atmosphere into a commodity and they were not having any of it. And in fact the European Union was not very enthusiastic either, so it really was the US and a couple of other allies – Canada and Australia – that were really holding out for this.”

The final document mentioned emissions trading, but it also sought to mollify opponents by saying such schemes should be “supplemental” to domestic action. They were also assured that the precise rules would be debated and decided in an inclusive manner at a later date.

When Estrada declared that the so-called committee of the whole was recommending adoption of the protocol “by unanimity,” the conference hall erupted in cheers. “I was very satisfied because I had a purpose to fulfill and I was able to do that,” he says.

Why it was criticized

Since that triumphant moment, however, the Kyoto Protocol has attracted a range of persistent criticisms. One is that the legally binding targets did not apply to rapidly growing nations like China and India, meaning that the efforts made in advanced economies would easily be cancelled out by emissions increases elsewhere. Another is that the treaty lacked teeth: Canada simply pulled out of the agreement when it became clear it was about to breach its target.

Kyoto’s effectiveness was also heavily undermined when the George W Bush administration refused to ratify it (and history seems to be repeating with Donald Trump’s planned withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, a move that veteran Kyoto negotiators view with dismay given its potential to act as a brake on global efforts).

Still, defenders point to a remarkable fact: all of the countries that fully participated in the Kyoto Protocol fulfilled their emission promises for the 2008 to 2012 commitment period, according to recently published analysis.

“By its own standards it did not fail,” declares Depledge, now a University of Cambridge lecturer.

“They might have relied on emissions trading and other emissions credits to meet their targets, but that was always provided for under the treaty so they cannot be blamed for that.”

Michael Zammit Cutajar, the executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat at the time of Kyoto, says there is a certain amount of symbolism attached to legally binding pledges in international agreements.

“I’m not a lawyer but there were no gunboats up the Saint Lawrence River when Canada pulled out,” he says. “It is more about giving a message that you have a really strong intent to observe the agreement when you say legally binding.”

Much has been made of the apparent differences between the approaches adopted in Kyoto in 1997 and Paris 18 years later. The Paris Agreement includes almost every country on earth, based on voluntary targets nominated by each government.

However, Zammit Cutajar notes that the protocol was also a product of each country’s nominated target.

“In fact, the Kyoto targets were not top-down,” he says. “There was no scientific formula imposing targets on countries. Countries presented their commitments, bottom-up. The overall 5% reduction mentioned in the protocol text was merely the total of these pledges.”

Countries still aren’t doing enough

Here’s the rub. For all the talk of technical compliance with country-level targets, the world is on track to warm to levels that are likely to exacerbate damaging climate impacts.

The Paris Agreement aimed to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels – and also included an aspirational limit of 1.5 degrees after lobbying from the low-lying small island countries that would be worst affected by sea level rises.

Sir Robert Watson, who headed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1997 to 2002, says he is not optimistic that the world will act quickly enough. He points out that the globe has already warmed 1 degree since pre-industrial times, and that the total of the Paris pledges is projected to overshoot the goals.

“I think there is zero chance, personally, of hitting the 1.5 degrees celsius target. I mean literally no chance at all,” Watson says bluntly during an interview in Tokyo.

“And I’m highly skeptical we’ll make the 2 degree target. I really do believe if we do well it will be a number closer to 3. Hopefully it will be less than 3 but even that will take additional strong measures by governments, private sector and individuals.”

In his role at the IPCC, Watson helped to distill the body of scientific research so policymakers understood the need for swift action. He told reporters on the sidelines of the Kyoto meeting in early December 1997: “It is clear that without limitations on emissions of greenhouse gases, the climate will change at a rate unprecedented during the last 10,000 years.”

Asked now whether he despairs at the situation, Watson says: “The action is slow. I think the market is moving in the right direction, renewable energy is getting cheaper, there’s no question people are doing more on end-use efficiency – but it’s not fast enough. It needs to be significantly scaled up.”

‘One has to be honest

Richard Kinley, who headed the secretariat team supporting the negotiations, says the Kyoto Protocol “kept the flame of hope on climate action alive for many years, including through some very dark periods.” But he concedes that the targets were not ambitious and some of them were “barely business-as-usual.”

“One has to be honest. Given what was really required, the level of implementation of action to counter the climate threat can only in an historical context be seen as inadequate,” Kinley says.

“I actually hate to think where the world would be if it had not had the Kyoto Protocol to rally round – and that may well be its enduring legacy. It also meant that developed countries – most of them at least – could say they had fulfilled their leadership obligation.”

Estrada has since retired from diplomatic service and works as a lawyer in Buenos Aires – but he still pays attention to climate news. He points to recent reports of an iceberg measuring 350 by 380 meters breaking off from a southern Chilean glacier.

The development has been linked to rising global temperatures. Impacts from climate change, says Estrada, are being felt “all over the world all the time.”

“I think we still need to get people of goodwill to do something,” he says. Having worked to reconcile a vast range of competing interests in Kyoto, Estrada expresses a note of caution: “It’s not easy. It’s not easy because this is an ever-changing game where everybody knows that we need actions for everybody but nobody wants to be the first.”