What happens when the Kyoto Protocol expires?

Post-Kyoto: Tangled Up in Red

Environmental activists demonstrate for strict emissions regulations at a post-Kyoto conference in Bali.
Environmental activists demonstrate for strict emissions regulations at a post-Kyoto conference in Bali.
AP Photo/Binsar Bakkara

­In 2005, the Kyoto Protocol went into effect. It was signed in 1997, but until industrialized nations accounting for more than half of the world's greenhouse gases ratified the treaty, it was a lame duck agreement. When Russia ratified Kyoto in 2005, it became a legally binding document.

Since then, one legally bound country after another has reported that they will not be meeting their commitments. The most recent one is Canada, which had promised to reduce its emission to 6 percent below 1990 levels. Austria, Ireland and Spain are also likely to fall short of their goals. Add to that the fact that the United States, the world's largest polluter, never ratified the agreement; and that two of the developing countries exempt from making reductions are China and India, two of the largest emitters behind the United States. We're left with a very big question: Was Kyoto doomed to fail?

Just like any agreement of this magnitude, the chances of success hinge on a lot of different factors. First, there's the endless red tape of global negotiations. We can look to current attempts to replace the Kyoto Protocol to understand how difficult it is to maneuver the world into any agreement at all. In 2006, thousands of delegates met in Kenya at the United Nations climate talk, where the hope was that they would set out a framework for achieving a post-Kyoto agreement. That didn't happen to anyone's satisfaction. A year later, the world's nations sent representatives to Bali, where success was declared when delegates negotiated their way to an agreement to start negotiating at a future date. In the meantime, the United States was simultaneously lobbying to have emissions caps removed from the post-Kyoto negotiations and hosting its own climate-change summit that produced a heartfelt and completely nonbinding declaration that the G-8 countries along with China, India and Brazil will set emissions-reduction goals in the future. Finally, in 2008, just three years after the Kyoto Protocol went into effect, negotiations began in Thailand to replace it.

Those negotiations reveal some other prime reasons why Kyoto has been unsuccessful so far. One big issue is the refusal of the United States to ratify the agreement. But the problem has as much to do with the relationship between the United States and its trade partners as with the failure of the world's biggest polluter to be involved at all. For one thing, the biggest U.S. trade competitor, China, isn't bound to any reductions. The United States took a stand that this would put an unfair burden on its economy since China would have the upper hand in producing goods without pollution restrictions. Later, Canada, which does the majority of its trading with the United States, declared it would not be meeting its commitment. This is probably at least partly due to its trade status with a country that is not bound to reduce emissions.

But another issue affecting Canada and other countries' ability to meet their commitments is time. Kyoto took effect in 2005 with the intent of meeting emissions goals between 2008 and 2012. It may seem that seven years is plenty of time, but in economic, political and industrial terms, it may be cutting it close. The only countries that are meeting their goals, including Britain and Germany, had started working on energy-saving infrastructure changes years before the Protocol became legally binding.

This time issue is why negotiations for a post-2012 agreement began in 2008. The hope is that giving countries more than ample time to make adjustments will increase chances of success.

­Post-Kyoto talks are focusing on other issues also intended to solve problems in the initial treaty. The biggest points shed light on just how complicated it is to move economies into more carbon-neutral positions.