In Search of Kyoto 2.0

This week, delegates from 158 countries met in Vienna to discuss climate change. Little concrete progress was expected, but behind the scenes the opening moves were being made in a high-stakes political game that could shape climate-change policy for decades to come. 

The Kyoto protocol, which commits three dozen industrialized countries to major emissions cuts, expires in 2012, and in December the UN begins two years of negotiations to draft a replacement. In Vienna this week, delegates began to stake out positions, setting out their visions for a post-Kyoto world. 

Since it was signed in 1997, the Kyoto protocol has come to symbolize much of what’s wrong with global climate-change efforts. To greens, it’s a high-water mark for American arrogance and apathy; to others, it’s a case of greener-than-thou Europeans engaging in ostentatious environmental grandstanding. This time around, fortunately, both sides seem determined to broker a less divisive deal: The US has accepted that it will have to significantly reduce its emissions, while the EU has taken a conciliatory approach while pushing for tough carbon cuts. 

Perhaps the most telling developments, though, came from the UN itself. Earlier this week, its scientists announced that carbon savings could best be made by pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into projects in the developing world. That angered some greens, who believe industrial nations shouldn’t outsource responsibility for climate change, but it also deftly reframed a key post-Kyoto stumbling block. Developing nations have long worried that for them, the climate battle is all stick and no carrot. The UN announcement shrewdly recasts the climate struggle as a potential cash cow.

Meanwhile, UN climate chief Yvo de Boer told delegates that Kyoto 2.0 should consist not just of binding targets, but also of a smorgasbord of voluntary environmental fixes from which governments could pick and mix. That’s another blow to green hardliners, who fear - perhaps rightly - that a deal without rigid rules won’t be worth the recycled paper it’s printed on. However, it’s also a smart gambit designed to keep Kyoto naysayers on board as the debate moves forward.

There are still tough problems to overcome - several Kyoto signatories oppose tough carbon cuts, and the depth of America, China, and India’s newfound commitments to fighting global warming remains questionable - but delegates at Vienna have taken an important first step. The question now is whether they can succeed in building a meaningful consensus on climate change - without sacrificing too many of the green movement’s sacred cows along the way.