With the clock ticking on the current international climate change treaty, negotiators are considering a set of stopgap measures to protect the European trading system and years of emission reduction efforts from collapse.
One option under serious study is a proposal to extend the 1997 Kyoto Protocol for two years, which presumably would keep countries bound by their existing obligations until a new agreement can be finalized.
Delegations from nearly 200 countries meeting in Bonn, Germany, this week are debating that possibility and others outlined in a new U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change report. But analysts say the discussion underscores the fundamental problem with the entire climate treaty process in the wake of last year's turbulent summit in Copenhagen, Denmark: Few countries agree on the goal.
"What do the parties really want?" asked Stephen Porter, an attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law. "That's the $64,000 question that remains unanswered even after Copenhagen."
At issue is the future of the Kyoto Protocol, in which industrialized nations agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels. The treaty, which the United States never ratified, is divided into commitment periods, and the first one ends in 2012.
The Obama administration has made clear the United States will not enter into a treaty unless China, India and other large developing countries are required to meet the same legal obligations as industrialized nations. There appeared to be movement in that direction in Copenhagen when all the major emitting countries signed an accord voluntarily agreeing to limit greenhouse gases and submit to international oversight. But in the months since Copenhagen, developing countries have doubled down on their insistence that the Kyoto Protocol remain the global tool for fighting climate change.
With only two years to go before Kyoto's demise and, according to leaders, almost no possibility of finishing a new treaty at this year's summit in Cancun, Mexico, negotiators are scrambling for a backup plan.
Facing a difficult process
"The Kyoto Protocol contains specific provisions for entry into force," Lutz Morgenstern of Germanwatch told reporters in Bonn this week. Any amendment to the treaty must be adopted by the Conference of the Parties and then ratified by three-quarters of all countries. That process could take months, if not years, other experts said, leaving little time for ratification even if countries manage to ink an agreement at their 2011 meeting in South Africa.
"It really and clearly illustrates the urgency and the dimension of the problems that would occur if such a gap arises between a first commitment period and a second commitment period," Morgenstern said.
Not all countries want Kyoto to continue. Japanese delegates, for example, argued that the report ignored their preferred option: scrapping Kyoto and crafting an entirely new treaty -- presumably based on the principles of the Copenhagen Accord.
Others, like Saudi Arabia and Bolivia, objected to any discussion of closing the gap for different reasons: There shouldn't be one, they argued. Other developing countries led by Yemen and a coalition of African nations led by the Democratic Republic of the Congo agreed, calling any gap unacceptable and pressing industrialized nations to stand by the Kyoto Protocol.
"I think there are a number of parties for whom the whole discussion makes them a little bit nervous because it seems to imply an acceptance of the gap in the first place," Porter said.
Complicating the entire discussion is the question of where the United States fits in. It is not a party to Kyoto and likely never will be. Developing countries have pushed for a "two-track" approach under which negotiators would agree on a second commitment period for Kyoto while also developing a treaty that America would be willing to join -- and assume the two agreements would mesh in later years.
A 'reasonable idea' that could take years
Policy analysts in the United States have zeroed in on one of the report's options in particular: extending the Kyoto Protocol until a new agreement can be crafted. Artur Runge-Metzger, the European Union's lead negotiator, told a reporter in Bonn that the European Union is considering the possibility. But, he noted, each of the European Union's 27 member states would have to agree, a process that could take more than a year.
"We have to look at what the practical value is to do this for just two years," he said. But he also added that he believes the Clean Development Mechanism -- which allows countries and companies to offset emissions by funding clean energy projects in developing nations -- can still continue even if there is a gap.
David Turnbull, director of the Climate Action Network, called extending Kyoto "a reasonable idea." But he argued that the bigger issue is the level of ambition countries are showing in their efforts to cut emissions.
"If we had the level of commitment from parties to actually come to an agreement, we could actually sort out the legal issues pretty quickly," he said. "The bigger picture is that we need to see countries put more ambitious options on the table."
Others say the legal form of an international agreement to cut carbon is one of the hardest nuts to crack in the climate talks. Elliot Diringer, director for international strategies at the Pew Center for Global Climate Change, said he thinks the best route right now is for countries to work on practical items, like agreements on technology transfer, money for vulnerable nations and transparency.
"My hope is that we keep our focus on the operational and our willingness to defer questions on legal form," Diringer said. "The best outcome would be a mandate to negotiate a new legally binding instrument."