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Air apparent to the Kyoto Protocol

The international climate negotiations that have been grinding on for years may have crossed a Rubicon of sorts. That's because a new model of engagement for some nations is receiving wide attention. It's shorthanded as “national schedules,” and it could get incorporated into the next world climate treaty — the one that replaces the Kyoto Protocol — to be signed in Copenhagen in December.

Under the proposal, nations would list the steps they promise to take to deal with climate change and the reduced emissions they expect each step to result in. The model is drawn from international trade negotiations, in which nations schedule measures taken to free up trade.

There are very important differences between agreeing to Kyoto-type terms and agreeing to list actions on national schedules. Under Kyoto, developed nations are obliged to account for all of their greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce them to a pre-agreed cap by a certain year. Under a national schedules approach, however, countries select a subset of emissions sources to act on and fix, but they do not agree to account for and cap all of their national emissions.

The increased national autonomy this provides, and the simplified accounting resulting from having to deal with a self-chosen subset of emissions, is very attractive to some countries. But the downside is the lack of an overall emissions cap — and therefore the potential for greenhouse emissions to continue to grow.

Still, adding a national schedules option to the global climate treaty makes sense, especially because it could spur climate-saving action in developing nations, which have so far been given a pass by the Kyoto Protocol. India and China, for example, two hefty polluters, are not obliged to account for and cap their emissions. However, getting them to schedule specific actions to reduce some of their emissions could put them on track toward a total cap, not to mention contributing to lower emissions in the meantime.

It's tempting to believe that the proposed mechanism of national schedules may have played a role in the breakthrough announcement by India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, on Sept. 18 that India would accept some sort of limits on its carbon emissions. And it may also have influenced Chinese President Hu Jintao's announcement on Sept. 22 that his country would mandate a “notable decrease” in carbon intensity by 2020. These surprising developments from the world's largest developing economies, which have long declined to engage meaningfully in climate negotiations, have had the effect of revitalizing the negotiations.

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