The Kyoto Protocol is on its death bed, set to expire in 2012 after a 14-year run that has done little to curb global warming. But it isn't dead yet, and many delegates at this week's U.N. climate summit in Durban, South Africa, are dead set on saving it.


Why? The Kyoto Protocol, despite its shortcomings, is the closest thing to an effective international treaty that has emerged from U.N. climate talks. If it expires with no successor lined up, some worry that global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions will fall apart. Kyoto supporters want to extend the treaty for a few more years until a replacement can be negotiated. 


Others, however, say Kyoto was fatally flawed from the outset and shouldn't be extended at all. This dispute has haunted the past decade of U.N. climate negotiations, and it's a big reason why most observers have low expectations for the Durban conference, which runs through Dec. 9.


The debate over Kyoto can be complex and esoteric, but it largely boils down to two opposing ideas of what's fair. The current treaty only requires wealthier nations to cut their greenhouse gas output, since they're primarily responsible for the past century of manmade carbon dioxide emissions. Developing countries generally support this setup, arguing that developed countries used coal, petroleum and natural gas to get rich quick, and they want the same opportunity.


The U.S., however, bailed on Kyoto because of this differentiation. American delegates to U.N. climate talks have long argued that such a framework creates an unfair double standard, and have refused to ratify the treaty unless it also imposes mandatory emissions cuts on rising superpowers such as China, India and Brazil.


This familiar debate has colored climate talks since the '90s, and while negotiators have made some progress, it's still blocking a deal that everyone claims to want. Most developing and developed nations agree that global emissions need to come down, but few are willing to accept binding cuts without certain (and often conflicting) conditions. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions are now rising again after a brief dip in 2008 and '09.


European countries are among the few developed supporters of renewing Kyoto, along with a chorus of developing nations and low-lying Pacific islands, which are on the front lines of climate change due to rising sea levels. The U.S. has led opposition to the treaty, along with other established superpowers such as Canada, Japan and Russia.


But according to the BBC, a "fundamental transformation" is now in the works, as some developing nations side with developed nations in trying to delay a new global treaty. Both India and the U.K., for example, want to renew Kyoto, but they now disagree on when a replacement should be drafted. The U.K. wants to start negotiations now, hoping to have the new treaty in place by 2015 and operational by 2020. India, however, agrees with the U.S. that discussions shouldn't even begin until 2015 — allowing time for what India dubs a "technical/scientific period." Brazil also reportedly likes this idea, calling for 2012-'15 to be a "reflection period."


China is said to be more flexible, although it's still focused on keeping Kyoto alive in Durban. And any future deal will need the support of both China and the U.S., which together generate 42 percent of all manmade CO2 emissions on Earth. To put that in perspective, all the countries now under mandatory Kyoto cuts account for just 27 percent of global CO2 emissions. Thus, even just a bilateral deal between the U.S. and China could potentially be more effective than Kyoto is now. 


Of course, such a deal would ignore more than half of the world's emissions, and countries like India, Indonesia and Brazil are fast becoming CO2 heavyweights. Real progress at U.N. climate talks will require global support, as officials from host South Africa emphasized Monday. "We are in Durban with one purpose: to find a common solution that will secure a future to generations to come," summit chairwoman Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Monday. "With sound leadership, nothing is impossible here in Durban," added South African President Jacob Zuma.


And while virtually no one predicts major progress in Durban, the 12-day conference does offer some rays of hope. There is reportedly a good chance of consensus on the framework of a $100 billion "Green Climate Fund," for example, which would help developing nations replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources. "I am pretty confident that we're going to be able to work these things out," Todd Stern, the top U.S. delegate in Durban, told reporters last week about the Green Climate Fund.


As for actual emissions cuts, the Washington Post reports that a patchwork strategy of national and regional plans may be rendering the idea of a Kyoto-style megatreaty obsolete. Such small-scale plans would be less effective overall than a global pact, and they could be abandoned down the road as local political regimes change. Still, whether it's Australia's new CO2 tax or Mexico's proposed carbon market, unilateral plans at least offer hope of some incremental progress in the near future.


As Jennifer Haverkamp of the Environmental Defense Fund tells Reuters, the fate of global climate talks shouldn't hinge entirely on Kyoto. "Given the current global political and economic situations, renewal of the Kyoto Protocol is highly unlikely," Haverkamp says. "But that is no excuse for the world to sit back and do nothing."


Stayed tuned to MNN for ongoing coverage of the Durban summit. And for more background on Durban and Kyoto, check out this video by Voice of America:



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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

It's crunch time for Kyoto
The fate of the 14-year-old climate treaty will likely be determined in Durban, South Africa, where the latest round of U.N. climate talks begin this week.