“Kyoto-2”: the lame duck of Western European climate diplomacy

12:39 21.01.2021 • Oleg Shamanov , minister-counsellor of the Russian Embassy in the Kingdom of Thailand, Russia’s deputy permanent representative at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)

Lessons learned from the international climate process

For many years, the problem of global climate change - one of the most serious environmental threats of our time - has been making international headlines and has been the subject of high-level political negotiations.

A new milestone will soon appear on the thorny path of the international climate process: the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) [1] comes into force on December 31, 2020. This document extends the period of the Kyoto Protocol for 2013-2020 (hence its informal name - "Kyoto-2"), and contains a whole set of amendments to the Kyoto regime, including updated quantitative indicators of greenhouse gas emission cuts for a group of developed countries.

Climate activists are likely to mark this “historic” stage in the battle against global warming with new marches, and the leaders of many countries – to renew their calls to "raise the level of ambition" in the name of averting a global climate collapse.

What doesn’t immediately meet the eye here, however, is why "Kyoto-2" is coming into force at the very close of its second commitment period (2013-2020).

Let's take a look at the real - not retouched - picture of the events of the lengthy negotiating process going under the auspices of the UNFCCC. However, if we take a look at what is going on “behind the scenes,” many things will clear up.  

The first attempt to find the key to solving the problem of global warming was made by the UN member states in the early 1990s, by adopting the abovementioned Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. The general atmosphere of enthusiasm, inspired by the proposed concept of sustainable development, made it possible to come up with the world’s first-ever climate treaty that took a mere 15 months to agree on.

The long and arduous negotiations that followed - from the development of the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC (1997) to the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement (2015) – resulted in a series of major successes and very painful failures [2]: the chaotic work of the Hague Conference (2000), which led to a six-month suspension of all activities; the jubilation over the outcome of the Marrakesh meeting (2001), which finalized the agreement on the entire set of rules for the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol; the euphoria in Montreal (2005) following the launch of the first commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol and the decision to start negotiations on the second period, the collapse of the Copenhagen Conference (2009); the adoption of the Durban Platform for Action (2011), which inspired hope for a positive outcome of the talks on the new climate regime, and the cynical disregard for procedural rules and UN principles displayed during the Doha Conference (2012), which called into question the legitimacy of its decisions, and sealed the fate of "Kyoto-2."

What has over the years been happening at the UNFCCC negotiation platform, reminds one of the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll’s timeless Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The situation was further complicated by the West European countries’ essentially dual climate diplomacy purported to spearhead the international campaign to save the Earth's climate. From the outside, it looks like a sincere desire to find a speedy solution to an acute environmental problem, which, however, hides a clear temptation to use pro-environment rhetoric to achieve economic advantages by changing the global energy balance that would rule out any multivariate national energy strategies, and, secondly, to redirect international cash flows, all the way to limiting investments in projects related to fossil energy sources.

Moreover, we have very often seen far from perfect methods being used to achieve these goals. Some people, for sure, would prefer not to make public little-known examples of this so as not to sally the reputation of the West’s environmental diplomacy. There are multiple examples of this that have piled up over the entire period of negotiations.

The 2000 session was traditionally presided over by a representative of the host country – then the Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment of the Netherlands, Jan Pronk. His thinly-veiled political bias, unwillingness to listen to partners and, in particular, his arrogantly demonstrative refusal to give the floor to the Russian representative at one time forced the Russian delegation to temporarily leave the conference room in protest. The Russian delegation eventually managed to fulfill its tasks during that session. However, the chairman’s arrogant behavior had a very deplorable effect on the overall results of the conference, which failed to achieve a balanced solution and take into account the interests of all participating countries and thus led to its suspension for a period of six months.

It was in The Hague that the EU’s "green aggressiveness," which reflected so badly on the future of the Kyoto Protocol, was manifested so clearly. Due to the intransigence demonstrated during the conference by the German and French environment ministers, Jurgen Trittin and Dominique Voynet, both representatives of their governments’ “Green” political wing, the European Union blocked the adoption of a US proposal to ensure greater flexibility in the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol by taking into account the potential of the land use sector in absorbing greenhouse emissions.

The participants were stunned by this short-sightedness, as the United States was then the world’s biggest polluter, accounting for about 17 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions. It was the conference in The Hague that precipitated America’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. And with the United States out, the coverage of total global emissions in the Kyoto Protocol’s initial commitment period dropped from 47 percent to 30 percent.

Examples of the European Union’s “odd” attitude continued, During the 2001 meeting in Marrakesh, the participants worked well into the night in consultations initiated by British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett, who was trying to convince the Russian delegation that the proposed threshold for the allowable offset of the use of the absorptive capacity of forests in fulfilling the obligations under the KP, which differed by just a few units from the earlier agreed indicator for Japan, was a "good deal." But the truth was that in 2002, the area of ​​forested territories in Japan was about 25 million hectares, compared to 621 million hectares in Russia - almost 25 times more! Margaret Beckett still believed that we should agree on numbers that were virtually similar to the Japanese.

This begs a simple question: “Are you serious? What about math and logic?

Throughout the negotiation period, Western European representatives have never tired of calling - and keep calling now for "raising the level of ambition." But here, too, we see a clear split of the European Union’s climate consciousness.

In 2005, Belarus expressed a desire to join the club of countries committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and thereby, to increase, though modestly, the Kyoto Protocol’s coverage of global emissions. The participating nations approved changes to the Protocol, making it incumbent on Belarus to reduce its emissions by eight percent. And still, the European Union refused to ratify this. If this is not a case of double standards, then what is?

Therefore, the crushing fiasco of the 2009 Copenhagen Conference came as no surprise at all.

Everything that could have been done wrong, Denmark did as chairman of the conference, starting with the decision to force the members of official delegations to stand in a tens, if not hundreds of meters-long line for security checks along with numerous observers (representatives of NGOs, the business community, and journalists), resulting in the negotiators being an hour or more late to the consultations room, and ending with a complete confusion during the closing stage of the high-profile event.

And this at a time when the heads of state and government of 119 countries had gathered in Copenhagen to adopt a fundamentally new document to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which would give a start to the implementation of a strategy of truly collective climate efforts, which included commitments not only for developed, but also for developing countries.

The stakes were high and political tensions were going through roof. On the night before the closing day of the conference, the heads of a number of states and governments representing major groups of countries, including  Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, joined in the talks. It seemed that after a series of exhausting informal discussions, a compromise was finally at hand. But!.. Without waiting for the final official meeting of the conference,  French President Nicolas Sarkozy left the meeting early in the morning and lost no time telling journalists before entering his plane that “the deal has been reached." The morning papers came out with splashy headlines and triumphant reports about a "historic climate breakthrough." Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, who had presided over the conference, was equally in a rush to submit the final document titled "Copenhagen Agreement" for adoption by the conference, without bothering to first hold formal consultations with all its participants.

Many leaders, who had not taken part in the overnight meeting, felt themselves insulted, with Hugo Chavez mincing no words when expressing his indignation. “They are trying to slip something through the crack under the door!” he fumed. The emotional discussion about the violation of the basic UN principles and the lack of transparency continued for a whole 13 hours.  Neither Rasmussen nor UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was able to save the situation. As a result, the Copenhagen Agreement was never signed,  blocked by representatives of a number of developing countries, led by Venezuela.

The fiasco in Copenhagen cost the participants another six years of negotiations, started virtually from scratch, until the Paris Agreement was finally inked in 2015. A whole six years of practical work to tackle the climate problem had thus been wasted.

The events of the Doha Conference (2012) top the list of anti-records in environmental diplomacy when, amid heated discussions of the configuration of “Kyoto-2,” where basic national interests were at stake, the Europeans at the very last moment and without proper coordination with all participating countries added a provision that actually emasculated the so-called emission quotas [4] saved by non-EU countries with transitional economies (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine). This automatically increased by almost three times (!) the burden of obligations for these countries and undermined the integrity of the regime of compliance with the Kyoto Protocol within its first and second periods.

Responding to the request of the Qatari presidency, and trying to rectify the clearly abnormal situation without putting at risk the constructive conclusion of the conference, Russia Belarus and Ukraine came up with a compromise option. Based on the results of urgent informal consultations presided over by the conference chair Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the State of Qatar, the participants worked out an algorithm for their further action, whereby the chairman would submit the Russian-Belarusian-Ukrainian proposal for formal consideration by a plenary session.

And ... the chairman did not keep his word.

Almost immediately after opening the final plenary session, he, without raising his head or looking into the hall, proceeded to approve the draft Doha Amendment in its original form. The question on the order of the session, raised by the Russian delegation, was demonstrably ignored, which in itself is a gross violation of the rules of procedure of the UNFCCC, and the package of final documents was allegedly approved by a consensual decision. Nonsense!

But this is not the end of the story! What makes the whole thing even more outrageous, all this did not happen spontaneously, but had apparently been planned in advance – something Norway’s environmental minister Bård Vegar Solhjell, one of the two ministers appointed to head the process of unofficial ministerial consultations, unashamedly admitted later in an article, titled "This is how Kyoto-2 came about.” Here are some quotes from that article in an unofficial translation from Norwegian,  published in the online version of Aftenposten newspaper on December 11, 2012: "Bomb ... Russia refuses to surrender ... In a brief discussion in the corner, someone says:’ We can do this just like we did in Cancun.’ What does it mean? To put forward a proposal [the draft of the entire final document] and ignore the protests that we know will come from Russia ..."

“Backstage” diplomacy”…  Compared to this, the "highly likely"-style tricks that the Western Europeans are playing today are no longer surprising.

Our response was honest, open and legally substantiated. In June 2013, during a session of the subsidiary bodies of the UNFCCC, Russia, with the active support of the Belarusian and Ukrainian delegations, proposed adding to the agenda of the Conference of the Parties a new item - “Decision-making within the UNFCCC process” to serve as a barrier to manipulation and violation of the generally recognized legal norms and UN principles. Do you think the European Union supported us? No, for the most part it kept silent.

It took us two weeks of grueling procedural discussions to achieve this goal, but it was worth the effort. The inclusion of this item on the agenda of the UNFCCC governing body was an important contribution to the prevention of legal and political nihilism within the international climate process.

But what was the outcome of "Kyoto-2" accord? Well, just like the popular Russian saying goes, “What you reap is what you sow”…

The natural reaction from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to the gross disregard for the UN procedures and principles at the Doha conference resulted in their refusal to ratify the Doha Amendment (as for Russia, long before Doha, we officially announced that we were not going to assume obligations under “Kyoto-2,” due to its extremely limited value for easing anthropogenic pressure on the climate). New Zealand and Japan refused to commit themselves to reducing emissions in the framework of "Kyoto-2." Such major emitters of greenhouse gases as the United States and Canada remain outside the Kyoto regime. As a result, compared to the first period of the Kyoto Protocol, the coverage of global emissions fell by another four times - from 30 percent to 7.6 percent. Is it possible to use it as an instrument of tackling the problem of global climate change?

Most notably, after Doha, the European Union refused to ratify the Doha Amendment for a whole five years, apparently reflecting on its position as the only major player bound to cut emissions in keeping with “Kyoto-2,” and even to provide financial assistance for climate goals to developing countries.

In fact, "Kyoto-2" only put off for a whole eight years the implementation of collective international legal measures to solve the problem of climate change. It will fade into oblivion after briefly appearing to the world in the guise of a full-fledged document: it officially takes effect on December 31, 2020, only to expire that very same day. What a sad and ironic coincidence!

Now all hopes are pinned on the Paris Agreement. However, the international community should learn serious lessons from the almost 30-year history of the climate process, from all its twists and turns and “crooked mirror” diplomacy, so that further efforts to combat global climate change are truly comprehensive, balanced, rest on a solid foundation of laws and the basic principles of the UN, thus making a genuine, not fictitious, contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If this is not done, then the Paris Climate Agreement, which took years of painstaking diplomatic effort to come by, may repeat the sad fate of “Kyoto-2.”


1 The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) was opened for signature during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). It entered into force on March 21, 1994. Its parties are 195 states (including Russia) and the European Union. The main goal of the convention is expressed only descriptively: to achieve stabilization of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic impact on the climate system. The Kyoto Protocol (KP) was adopted at the third session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (1997, Kyoto, Japan). It entered into force on February 16, 2005. Its parties are 191 states (including Russia) and the European Union. The United States refused to join it (signed, but not ratified), and in December 2012 Canada withdrew from the KP. The KP specifies commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sets quantitative indicators for reducing emissions for developed countries and a number of countries with economies in transition for the so-called first commitment period - 2008-2012. Developing countries do not have quantitative obligations under the KP.

2 I already expressed my opinion about this as part of the “Paris Dossier” online project (https://profilesofparis.com).

3 According to the rules for the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol, what is taken into account are not all of a country’s forests, but only those territories where targeted measures are taken to maintain the forest cover. Managed forests in Russia account for about 80 percent of the country’s total forest area.

4 For practical purposes of the Kyoto Protocol implementation, the percentage of emission reduction commitments were recalculated into the so-called assigned amount units, that is, quotas (in the form of metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent). They could be used within the framework of the economic mechanisms provided for by the KP (for example, sold to states interested in using this instrument to fulfill their obligations). In addition, the possibility of their involvement in the fulfillment of future obligations was not excluded.