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November 23, 2012

Kyoto Protocol Winds Down As Delegates Head To Doha

by Henry Ridgwell

The Kyoto Protocol is set to expire in just a few weeks, and its replacement will be debated during next week's climate talks in Qatar.  However, few observers believe a new deal will be struck in Doha.  Henry Ridgwell looks back on 15 years of the Kyoto Protocol.

As delegates from 190 countries head for Doha to try to forge a new deal on tackling global warming, the Kyoto Protocol - signed in 1997 - is due to expire at the end of the year.

​​That deal sets binding targets for industrialized countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of five percent from 1990 levels.

By most measures, it has failed, says Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University.

“The Kyoto Protocol has made virtually no difference whatsoever to the growth of global emissions. Back in 1990 they were going up at about two parts per million, they’re now going up at about three (parts per million),” Helm said.

Helm says the main flaw of the Kyoto Protocol is that it only covers a fraction of the world’s total emissions, because much of the West is already de-industrializing

 “We should be taxing carbon consumption, including those carbon imports - so putting a price on carbon so we really pay for our carbon footprint in the West, as well as around the world,” Helm said.

Despite the continuing rise in harmful emissions, Ruth Davis of Greenpeace says the Kyoto Protocol remains a vital tool.

“The principles embedded in the Kyoto Protocol are absolutely essential to a workable international treaty.  Those principles are around things like common counting rules and transparency so that one country can see what another country is doing when it makes a commitment,” Davis said.

​​Protestors voiced their anger at the last climate summit in Durban in 2011, after delegates failed to reach a new post-Kyoto deal, pledging only to adopt a legal agreement by 2015.

The sheer size of the meetings has made reaching a consensus virtually impossible, says Heike Schroeder of the University of East Anglia.

“Very small countries would come with, let’s say, three delegates: Somalia sent three delegates to Copenhagen, whilst Brazil sent almost 600 delegates.  That’s a huge difference.  And so these small countries just cannot actually be part of all the negotiations that are taking place,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder is pessimistic that much will be achieved this time round.

“Nothing has changed.  And it will be the continuation of what we’ve seen in terms of a lot of talk with very little progress,” Schroeder said.

Dieter Helm of Oxford University paints a similarly bleak picture.

“By 2020 on current growth rates, China and India will be twice their current size, there will be 400 to 600 gigawatts of new coal on the system and we’ll be way beyond 400 parts per million (in terms of global emissions),” Helm said.

Scientists say global warming is already taking effect. The World Bank warned this month that the world is likely to warm by 3 to 4 degrees centigrade by the end of the 21st century. Extreme weather, it warns, will become the "new normal."