The winding roads to replacing the Kyoto Protocol by 2015

In just two years, the world could have a major climate treaty do-over.

Descending on Paris in December 2015, world leaders are expected to do what they failed to in Copenhagen, Denmark, back in 2009: sign an agreement that will keep global temperatures from rising beyond a dangerous 2 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels.

But what will this new climate change agreement look like? Will it be the legally binding treaty for which many vulnerable countries yearn, carving up the world's remaining allotment of greenhouse gas emissions based on which nations have already belched more than their fair share and which still need space to grow? Or will it be a looser agreement like the Obama administration wants, in which nations declare the cuts they are willing to make, then rely on global peer pressure to ensure those reductions are ambitious?

And to whom will it apply? Nations have agreed the 2015 deal should be "applicable to all parties," which the United States takes to mean that it is the dawning of a new era in which all major emitters (read: China) take obligatory action. Yet the deal was also agreed to be "under the Convention," a phrase that is sometimes interpreted as "rich countries act, everyone else gets money." The way in which those fraught coded phrases are ultimately parsed could fundamentally alter the direction of a new agreement.

Starting this week in Warsaw, Poland, countries' energy ministers will try to agree on some of the answers to these questions. Here's an early road map on where the major players are thinking about going for the final deal in 2015:


United States

Todd Stern, the United States' special envoy for climate change, has been forthright about America's views on a 2015 deal. The basic outlines are that each country should make mitigation commitments by early 2015 that "reflect its national circumstances and full capabilities."

The United States rejects "categories" of countries, like the ones that now exist dividing developed from developing, and rules out the "formulas" some countries like India have proposed to carve up carbon space. After that, a consultation process would follow during which countries, civil society and independent agencies would analyze the bids.

According to the U.S. submission to the United Nations, this period would be a "race to the top" in which "parties are both comfortable with putting their best commitment forward, and uncomfortable about not putting their best effort forward, because they want others to see they are contributing the most they can do to solve the climate problem."

And although some have called for countries to bring offers early and then ratchet them up by the time a 2015 pact is signed, U.S. officials said that could lead just to jockeying and a "low level of ambition." They acknowledge that when the numbers are added up under the U.S. method, the cuts might not be sufficient, but they said, "If that happens, Parties may come under pressure to revise upward, but it will ultimately be their choice."

Finally, a system of reporting and transparency will allow countries to keep tabs on one another's progress. Money from rich to poor countries will continue to flow, but the bulk of a $100 billion agreement in annual climate flows will come from the private sector, triggered by targeted public finance.

And the legal character of all this? Stern has called for flexibility there, too, warning countries to "keep our eye on the prize" and saying that "insisting that only one way can work, such as an agreement that is internationally legally binding in all respects, could put that prize out of reach."


For Beijing, the new climate agreement will be the same as the old climate agreement. China's opening salvo in its March submission to the United Nations was that nothing has changed. The 2015 deal, it maintained, "is by no means a process to create a new international climate regime, nor to renegotiate, rewrite or reinterpret the Convention and its principles and provisions."

Translation: Don't even think of upending the current system in which developed countries known as Annex I nations take legal obligations and non-Annex I developing nations don't. That dichotomy, China wrote, "is the very foundation of the Convention regime," and any attempt to upend it will only delay a 2015 deal "with nothing to come in the end."

When it comes to new carbon cuts, China argues for more of the same: industrialized nations making "ambitious, legally binding and economywide" targets, and developing countries undertaking a range of measures "supported and enabled by adequate finance, technology and capacity-building support from developed countries."

Money -- "mainly public" -- and technology should continue to flow from north to south, with a clear road map for how it will ratchet up. And yet, do all the strong words mask a willingness to act? The country is eyeing carbon caps as early as 2016, and analysts say China could abandon its long-held position against such caps for developing nations before the Paris talks.


It's not quite a cut-and-paste job, but India does use strikingly similar language to China, emphasizing that the "applicable to all parties" phrase the United States fought so hard to include doesn't actually signal any change.

There will be no "dilution" of the annex system, India argues. As it has been since 1992, wealthy countries should take legally binding quantified emission reductions while others will act "enabled by finance and technology transfer," and based on how much or little they've contributed to the climate crisis.

Public funding must increase, India argues, and it is also pushing for loosening intellectual property rights on green tech, something the United States has vowed will never see the light of day.

South Africa

South Africa has one of the most comprehensively laid-out submissions for the 2015 deal. While it shares the language of its fellow emerging powers about the need for equity, South Africa breaks with others on some key issues. For one thing, it wants to see a single legally binding protocol for all parties, with a common global commitment to stay below the 2-degree threshold, saying that approach "has the most potential to mobilise ambition."

The differences come in expecting developed countries to reduce absolute economywide emissions against a 1990 base year with common accounting rules and comparable targets. The need for developed countries to continue growing and eradicating poverty is understood, but, South Africa argues, between 2020 and 2030 developing countries "must strive to slow their emissions growth."

Commitments and accounting rules for developing countries might be more flexible in the early years, but all would be legally responsible for climate action.

European Union

The E.U. plan reads much like America's, but there is one major exception: European leaders view the 2015 deal as a legally binding agreement, and it's unclear how strongly European leaders will stick to that view knowing the United States can't support it.

Also unlike the U.S. plan, the European plan has a much stronger top-down element, insisting that individual mitigation targets meet a collective goal of keeping global temperatures from crossing the 2-degree threshold, and in addition to stringent reporting and verification, it includes a compliance mechanism.

Yet it finds common ground with the United States in insisting that the agreement must apply to all nations and argues that the principles of equity "must be applied in a dynamic way such that all parties participate over time in accordance with their evolving responsibilities and capabilities."


After positioning itself for the past two years as a deal maker and bridge builder between the United States and emerging powers, Brazil has suddenly reversed course with a divisive proposal to use historical emissions levels to determine how much countries should be able to pollute in the future.

The country's September submission, which won fresh attention when a large number of developing countries embraced it during the first week of the U.N. talks in Warsaw, calls for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to "develop a methodology" to quantify what each nation's contribution to climate change since the Industrial Revolution has been. Those levels, Brazil argues, should guide the domestic targets that each nation -- and particularly developed nations -- puts forward for a post-2020 target.

The proposal has won mixed reviews, with one European negotiator dismissing it as "simplistic." Several developed nations have made the point that the time frame Brazil hopes to have the IPCC study is too limited, not taking into account the fast-growing proportion of emissions for which the developing world will soon be responsible. As of this week, discussions of the proposed study have largely been blocked.

Meanwhile, Brazil's interpretation of the "applicable for all" language of the Durban Platform appears to be that all nations should "demonstrate enhanced agreement," but that the traditional lines between rich and poor nations should stay in place.

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