BONN, Germany -- A new international accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020 will likely set targets for cuts without holding parties responsible for achieving them -- a compromise meant to ensure participation by such major emitters as the U.S., China and India.
A preliminary working-group meeting ended here Friday for the upcoming 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP21.
Japan, whose old capital gave its name to the existing Kyoto Protocol, is less of a force in the negotiations this time.
Countries are moving to tackle climate change, albeit to varying degrees of enthusiasm, a person familiar with the talks said. The U.S., Japan and the European Union have proposed reduction targets, as have China, India and others.
The new agreement would succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which imposed binding reductions in carbon dioxide and other gases on the advanced economies party to it. But the world's biggest emitter, the U.S., abandoned it in 2001. China and India, which spew rapidly rising volumes of greenhouse gases, insisted that they were developing countries and got a free pass. The first commitment period, from 2008 to 2012, thus proved largely ineffective.
The U.S., China and India accounted for nearly half of global greenhouse gas emissions as of 2012. For this reason, and in light of the Kyoto Protocol's shortcomings, the aim this time is to ensure that all countries are involved.
But a binding agreement would have little hope of ratification by a Republican-controlled U.S. Congress. Developing countries also refuse to commit to reductions, which they argue hamper economic growth.
COP21 chair France says full participation is the priority. It is not pushing for an enforcement mechanism like the one that backed up the Kyoto Protocol.
Voluntary reductions involve less political heavy lifting. The UNFCCC secretariat reports that 146 countries, accounting for 87% of global emissions, have submitted them.
But a lack of hard-and-fast commitments will make for a flimsy agreement. The proposed reductions also vary significantly in size and baseline. The U.S. offers to emit 26-28% less greenhouse gases in 2025 than in 2005. The EU says it will try for a 40% reduction in 2030 compared with 1990. China and India propose cuts proportional to gross domestic product.
Tall order for Tokyo
Japan, which chaired the 1997 conference where the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, proposes to emit 26% less greenhouse gases in 2030 than in 2013. That looks to be a stretch as things stand now.
Unable to rely as extensively on nuclear power as it did before the Fukushima disaster, Japan has little choice but to burn more fossil fuels. Much of the new power generation capacity being planned is of the coal-fired kind, making Japan a butt of criticism from climate change crusaders.
This may put the Japanese delegation in an awkward position at COP21. With its ability to achieve its own voluntary target in doubt, Japan too finds itself opposing a binding agreement.
But the nation does know how to mobilize technology against climate change. To prove effective, any new framework for greenhouse gas reductions will need to harness innovation and financing.