Most analysis paints the U.S. and China as the selfish ogres of Durban that came to South Africa gazing only at their own navels. Meanwhile, other much less influential nations are trying to keep the Kyoto Protocol alive under the pretext of improving the state of the planet but with the less than admirable intention of continuing to cash in, as they have over the last years, from this unique and complex agreement to combat climate change.

It is the countries of eastern Europe, former Soviet states and satellites, which continue to profit by putting on the market their emission rights, so that other countries, like Spain, can reduce theirs in order to comply with Kyoto’s objectives. Unless the European Union does something about this in the coming months, these eastern states will continue to reap the benefits of doing nothing.

In 1997, to persuade a country like Russia, one of the world’s biggest polluters, to sign the Kyoto Protocol, one point was added as a carrot, a juicy compensation to sweeten the other commitments – and this was the option of selling to other countries its emissions surplus. The protocol fixed limits of harmful gases that could be released into the atmosphere by each country and permitted those countries that released less than the quota to sell what remained of it.

Poland calling the shots

But key to the protocol was that the emission levels used as the reference point dated from 1990, which was when highly polluting Soviet industry was fouling the planet’s skies at full throttle. As that decade came to its end, though, all that industrial might had vanished, or its capacity for damaging the atmosphere had been reduced. The result was a misleading drop in emissions.

This explains why a country like Latvia can boast today that it has cut its CO2 emissions by 478%, a surplus that brings home significant cash from the carbon credits market. On the list of countries that have also reduced their emissions, after Latvia come Estonia (down by 73%), Lithuania (71%), Russia (66%), Finland, Belarus, Romania (64% each) and Ukraine (60%). Spain has bought tons of CO2 from several of these countries on several occasions to try to meet its emission reduction agreements that it committed to under Kyoto, that treaty that went down in the countries beyond the former Iron Curtain like a winning ticket in the Super Lottery.

In Durban, Russia – the main country that this peculiar situation was created for – has shown no eagerness to join the smaller group of states that have opted to extend Kyoto. But the issue of the “hot air”, the term given to these immense emissions quotas the eastern countries still possess, has yet to be resolved– mainly due to the inability of the EU, once again, to agree.

On one hand are those countries that would like to reconsider these “fringe benefits” that allow all states, whether buyers and sellers, to comply with the obligations without lifting a finger; on the other are the eastern countries that consider these emission rights as their special “cohesion funds” for restructuring their industries. And as icing on the cake, Poland, one of the states that has benefited most from this market in quotas, holds the rotating presidency of the EU, sits at the table in South Africa.

The text in which the last of the states that are still in Kyoto – the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Australia and New Zealand – agree to uphold the treaty until 2017 or 2020 includes only a request to assess the “consequences of extending” the emission-cutting targets allocated to each country. “This is clearly an important problem the EU should come to grips with. In Durban they were unable to present a unified front, partly because of how Poland chose to play its cards,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman on Climate Change, Aida Vila, recently arrived from the South African Climate Summit.

"Purpose of Kyoto was not to do business"

Greenpeace expects that this situation will be cleared up at the next European Council meeting to be held in Brussels next March. Two months after that, the deadline for signatories of Kyoto 2 to report their targets for reduction or quantified emission limitations will expire. A second term will then come into force on January 1, 2013.

“Brussels will have to put an end to this situation,” said Vila. “It doesn’t look like that’s going to be easy, though.” From her perspective, at least an “intermediate option” will have to be chosen, one that would do the most to reduce that giant balloon full of future greenhouse gases that eastern Europe is using to line its pockets.

“The purpose of Kyoto was not to do business or to have countries sit on their hands as they bought and sold emission rights. The true intent of the protocol is being perverted,” the ecologist laments. By her calculations, carbon credits are becoming so cheap on the market that EU countries could meet their goals for Kyoto 2 without “anyone having to do anything.”

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer