With a climate regime crumbling, could a solution be in Asia?

Canada, Japan and Russia account for more than a quarter of the world’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and yet the three nations have indicated that they no longer want to be obligated under the Kyoto Protocol beyond its first commitment period, which ended last December 31.

The Kyoto Protocol is an international multilateral environmental agreement (MEA) that binds 37 industrialised countries to GHG reduction targets spread into two commitment periods until 2020. In withdrawing from the Protocol, the three countries cease following the obligations and paying penalties for any unmet targets.

This move of withdrawal is a major blow for Kyoto supporters. It severely damages the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a process already weakened by divisions. And following last year’s arduous climate change talks at Doha, the pressing question at hand is: what does this mean for Asia?

Negotiations now target the 2015 climate change talks for a series of paramount decisions. The goal is to usher in a new era of response measures that will commence a new agreement to supersede the Kyoto Protocol by 2020.

The problem is – as the Doha talks have shown – keeping to the agreement is a complicated undertaking. The three big emitters who want to dismiss their obligations have put the future of the Kyoto Protocol – and indeed the entire climate regime – on the line.

In the Copenhagen Accord, a non-binding agreement made at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) in 2009, Canada was committed to reduce its GHG emissions to 17 per cent below its 2005 level by 2020. But on June 8, 2011, Canada indicated that it did not intend to participate in the second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol. And about six months later, on December 13, Canada formally withdrew its participation from the Protocol.

Japan, on the other hand, pledged to reduce emissions by 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, on the condition that other industrialised countries make similar pledges. But following the Fukushima fallout in 2011, when public confidence in nuclear power was shattered, Japan began overhauling its energy policies.

Oil and gas have been imported increasingly. Emissions, as a result, have soared, while nuclear plants remain idle. It is estimated that only two of Japan’s 54 reactors are in use. This is a sharp reduction for an industry that once supplied 30 per cent of the country’s electricity.

So should Japan decide to phase out their nuclear power all together, it is unlikely that they will be able to meet their Kyoto targets. This will push them to officially withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

But even before the nuclear disaster, on December 10 of 2010, Japan indicated that it did not have any intention to be under the obligation of the second commitment of the Kyoto Protocol after 2012. The country, which is the world’s fifth biggest emitter, only remained committed to cutting its emissions by 6 per cent from 1990 levels over the period of 2008 to 2012.

Russia, the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States, also announced a year ago its plan to no longer assume the quantitative emissions limitation or reduction commitment (QELRC) for the second commitment period.

Russia’s role in international climate negotiations is important. Aside from having one of the larger economies among the parties and being a country rich in fossil fuels, Russia tipped the balance of Annex I countries or those highly industrialised nations that account for at least 55 per cent of GHG emissions, from 44 per cent to 63 per cent when it ratified the Kyoto Protocol on November 18, 2004. By exceeding the 55 per cent mark, the Protocol was entered into force, binding all 37 industrialised nations to emission reduction targets.

However, similar to Japan, Russia’s support for climate cooperation has remained contingent on participation by the US, China, and other major economies. Thus, in Doha, Russia quickly sided with Japan, Canada, and the US in rejecting the Protocol’s second commitment period.

By pulling out of Kyoto, a country avoids paying penalties for missing targets. Financial contributions will also be reduced. Currently, Canada foots 3.2 per cent of the total bill, Japan 12.53 and Russia 1.6 per cent. Canada is likely to save up to CAN$14 billion (S$17.64 billion) going forward.

But although monetary contributions may not quite affect the UN Secretariat, the formal withdrawal of these countries may spark other industrialised nations to follow suit, which would be devastating to the climate change progress made since 1992.

At this critical juncture, the UNFCCC will look to Asia, especially its largest emitters China and India, to play a significant role in pushing for the success of the multilateral climate change regime. This is not only a likely possibility, but also a necessary option seeing that climate change affects developing countries disproportionately more than rich ones. Tropical and subtropical lands are more sensitive to global warming compared to cold or temperate regions. Rich countries are less disrupted also since they can afford better flood controls and drought-resistant seeds.

China has already overtaken the US as the world’s largest carbon dioxide emitter. Soon, India may overtake Russia as the third largest emitter. Given the huge population of both, which jointly covers almost two-fifths of the world population, it is hardly surprising that the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that China and India will account for 45 per cent of global energy demand growth by 2030.

The IEA also predicts that the two countries will account for 80 per cent of the increase in coal demand — no surprise here either as these two biggest developing countries will first resort to coal, which is the cheapest and dirtiest fossil fuel, for their rising energy demand. China and India already produce a combined total of around 29 per cent of the world’s emissions. And apart from Japan, they are the only two Asian countries in the top ten largest emitters of carbon dioxide globally.

However, the need and right to development with the right to a viable climate future is likely to be contested. Developing countries in Asia and beyond are unlikely to go down without a fight, particularly as many still stress the historical responsibilities of the developed countries. Indeed, success at the climate change negotiations will not be forthcoming unless the key concerns of these countries – specifically those pertaining to inequities – are sufficiently taken into account in the future development of the regime.

Melissa Low is an Energy Analyst from the Energy Studies Institute, National University of Singapore

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