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Is Paris Climate Accord ‘Kyoto 2.0’?

Kerry will sign the Paris climate agreement Friday. Image via Flickr

Secretary of State John Kerry will join more than 150 other world leaders in New York City on Friday to formally sign the Paris climate agreement on cutting carbon emissions.

Even after all 196 countries involved eventually sign the agreement, there will be many variables determining its effectiveness. Does the U.S.’s Clean Power Plan hold up in court? Does the U.S. manage to legally send funds to the Green Climate Fund? What kind of laws do other countries pass to hold up their end of the bargain?

One of the most important debates about the agreement is how much it resembles the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 agreement the U.S. did not ratify and that failed to have much of an impact on global emissions. Opponents of the Paris deal say it’s basically the same as Kyoto, an ambitious agreement that countries won’t follow through on.

Supporters say it’s the opposite. The Paris deal loops in more countries than the Kyoto Protocol and gives them more flexibility to meet goals.

“It’s kind of Kyoto turned on its head,” Alex Hanafi, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, told Morning Consult.

Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, led by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) released a white paper Thursday calling the Paris agreement “Kyoto 2.0,” saying the United States and other countries are making promises they can’t keep.

The paper says the Supreme Court’s stay of the Clean Power Plan throws off the timing of the United States’ commitment to cut 26 percent to 28 percent of its carbon emissions (from a 2005 baseline) by 2025, even if the court ultimately upholds the rule.

The paper also criticizes how low the bar is set for China, which is required to “peak” its emissions by 2030 rather than achieving any actual reductions. The disparity between China and other country’s commitments illustrates that the Paris deal “is mainly political theater — like most aspects of this deal — to forward the interests of those most involved in orchestrating the agreement,” it says.

Advocates for the Paris agreement see it differently. They point to its treatment of China as an improvement on Kyoto’s shortcomings. China’s Paris goals might not be ambitious, but under the Kyoto Protocol, China and other developing countries didn’t set any greenhouse gas targets.

Before details of the Paris accord were released, opponents of international climate agreements frequently pointed to China as the reason. It was given a free pass under the Kyoto Protocol because it’s still developing economically. Without China on board, America’s reduced emissions are basically negated, they argued.

“America is not a planet,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said in a presidential debate in September 2015, adding that emission cuts in the U.S. “would do absolutely nothing” because of high emissions in China.

Now, China is on board, however unambitiously, with the Paris agreement. Climate advocates say that’s a major improvement from the Kyoto Protocol. The Paris agreement’s broad nature “signals a new era of climate cooperation,” Hanafi said.

The Paris negotiations attracted cooperation from China and other developing countries through another significant difference between it and the Kyoto Protocol — the Paris agreement’s terms aren’t legally binding. Instead, they are guidelines that call on countries to pass their own laws.

For opponents of the agreement, that’s even worse than the Kyoto Protocol. “Kyoto was legally binding and countries still failed to comply. Non-binding targets in the Paris Agreement will not produce any greater confidence that countries will comply,” the Environment and Public Works Committee’s paper says.

But supporters say the flexibility in the Paris accord is the reason that so many countries, including China, participated in the first place.

“In an ideal world, we might want a top-down style with legally binding commitments, but realistically that doesn’t bring parties to the table,” Gwynne Taraska, associate director of energy policy at the Center for American Progress, told Morning Consult.

Taraska added that, like the U.S.’s Clean Power Plan, laws passed in other countries will ultimately be legally binding.

The Paris accords also put more emphasis on the Green Climate Fund, which sends money from wealthier countries to ones that are still developing. The U.S. and other wealthy countries got developing nations to sign on to the Paris deal partly because they promised financial support.

The Green Climate Fund is its own source of partisan disputes inside the United States. The U.S. deposited $500 million to the fund in March, but Republican lawmakers are gearing up for a fight over future deposits.

On Monday, 29 senators sent Kerry a letter indicating U.S. payments to the fund could be illegal. The fund is tied to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which recently allowed Palestine to become a full member. The 1994 Foreign Relations Authorization Act bars the U.S. government from making any payment to an organization that recognizes Palestine as a state. That would make any further payments illegal, the Republicans argued.

Despite the Paris agreement’s differences with the Kyoto Protocol, comparisons to the unsuccessful Kyoto agreement are tempting for opponents, even when they are not entirely accurate. In January, U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas Donohue noted in his State of American Business address that the U.S. met the Kyoto emission reduction targets, despite not ratifying the agreement. That shows that these types of agreements are unnecessary.

“How? We did it our way,” Donohue said. “We did it through technology, through efficiency, with alternatives, and the cleaner use of traditional resources.”

He misspoke, though. The U.S. did not meet its Kyoto Protocol goals, although Donohue isn’t the only one to make that error. Kerry also made the same claim in 2013, but a spokesman later clarified that the secretary was referring to the wrong baseline year for emissions.

By 2012, the U.S. measured lower carbon emissions than it did when it initially signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. But the agreement calls for a 7 percent reduction from 1990 levels. In 2014, CO2 emissions totalled 5,556 million metric tons, compared to 5,115.1 million metric tons in 1990, according the the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest greenhouse gas inventory.