Working out a treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 international treaty intended to curb greenhouse gas emissions, is a big item on the global diplomatic agenda for 2010. But currently the momentum to get negotiations moving is not very strong.

The 15th United Nations Climate Change Conference (or COP15), held in Copenhagen in December, failed to conclude a new treaty, although leaders of some 120 countries went to the trouble of coming to the conference and joining the talks. Instead, COP15 only came up with an agreement, known as the Copenhagen Accord, which urges — but does not require — deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by major polluters and provides billions of dollars in aid to poor countries, to help mitigate the impact of climate change and also enable them to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. Under that treaty, developed countries are obliged to reduce their total greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. However, since the United States, a big polluter, withdrew from the treaty under the Bush administration, it currently has no obligation to reduce emissions.

In addition, the treaty exempts developing polluters, including rapidly industrializing countries like China and India, from the emissions-reduction obligation.

Countries that are subject to the reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol are collectively responsible for only about 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In contrast, the U.S. and China together are responsible for some 41 percent.

The U.S. has announced that it will cut emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. This goal is modest compared with Japan’s target of a 25 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020, as announced by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama in his speech at the U.N. in September. Nevertheless, U.S. President Barack Obama and his administration will still have a hard time getting Congress to enact a bill to deal with climate change.

China has announced that it will reduce emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 percent to 45 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. But in real terms, China’s emissions are expected to increase even if this formula is satisfied, because of the anticipated rapid expansion of its economic activity.

The Copenhagen Accord aims to continue and strengthen the efforts begun with the Kyoto Protocol, but it has no binding power on any nation. If the prospects of producing a new treaty diminish, calls for extending the Kyoto accord beyond 2012 may arise. This would be an unwelcome development.

Parties to talks on emissions reduction need to work out a new treaty. It is clear that, under the Kyoto Protocol, the economic and social burden that comes with working toward this vital goal is not shared equitably among advanced, emerging and undeveloped countries. Also, any arrangement that simply relies on extending the conditions of the Kyoto accord will not be effective in addressing global warming.

The Copenhagen Accord is also insufficient on its own. Under the accord, developed nations must submit quantifiable emission-reduction targets for 2020 and developing nations, their action plans, by Jan. 31. However, the accord does not guarantee that participating countries will take serious efforts to achieve their stated goals.

The Japanese government takes the view that the COP15 accord serves as an equitable and effective foundation for a new emissions-reduction treaty, in which major emitters including the U.S. and China will take part. But this view may be too optimistic. It is possible that the Copenhagen Accord will in time turn out to be a hollow document that pushes participating nations to do no more than list voluntary emission-reduction targets and action plans, on which they may or may not actually follow through. Japan should do its utmost to ensure negotiations produce a new treaty with binding power.

Japan should find ways to use its own declared emissions-reduction target as a vehicle for progress toward a new global framework. Although industry in Japan is resisting the target of a 25 percent reduction in emissions, the Hatoyama administration should stand firm. The challenges of meeting a stringent reduction target could spur technological innovation. This would not only create employment, but also reduce Japan’s dependence on fossil fuels, especially oil, thus boosting its resilience to fluctuations in price and supply.

Japan should also consider taking full advantage of the clean development mechanism allowed for by the Kyoto Protocol. Exploiting this would see Japan export low-carbon technologies to developing countries, and receive carbon credits when greenhouse gas emissions in those countries are reduced. At home, the government should fully prepare to introduce a carbon tax and emissions trading.

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