BONN — The Kyoto Protocol is under threat and political leaders should no longer skirt core questions about its destiny, the UN's top climate official told environment ministers from around the world Monday.
"The question is on everybody's mind but, unfortunately, on nobody's lips: what, in all honesty, is the future of the Kyoto Protocol?," Yvo de Boer asked more than three dozen ministers gathered near Bonn to brainstorm on climate.
"It is your responsibility to take this thorny topic by the horn," said de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
After the failure of the Copenhagen summit to craft a successor, Kyoto remains the only enforceable global treaty requiring industrialised nations to cut carbon emissions.
Its current provisions run out in 2012.
Whether to tweak, bolster or bury the Protocol emerged as a red-hot issue last year, but was sidelined after the near collapse of the December conference.
Developing countries, which are exempted from its provisions, have made it abundantly clear that they wish to see the Protocol extended.
Some rich countries, especially those of the European Union, have said they remain open to this option.
"But under what conditions?" de Boer asked the ministers.
Framed in 1997 and put into force in 2005, Kyoto legally binds 37 so-called "Annex 1" industrialised countries to cut greenhouse gas output by a total of more than five percent before 2012, compared to 1990 levels.
The efforts demanded from each country vary. Europe has already unilaterally committed to cuts of 20 percent by 2020, and is debating whether to increase that offer to 30 percent.
The United States signed the protocol but never ratified it, objecting to the fact that it did not cover major emerging economies such as China, which has since become the world's top carbon polluter.
Under the Obama administration, this position has not wavered.
The fundamental question, the UN chief said, is what to use as a benchmark: the commitments other developing nations are willing to make, or the actions of the developing world.
De Boer doubted whether the EU and other Annex 1 nations will be willing to take on new commitments if equivalent US efforts are only written into national law.
"How would one explain to voters in some industrialised countries, for example, that they have an international, legally-binding commitment when others do not?" he said.
The presence of a double standard among rich nations -- international laws for some, national laws for others -- could erode the will of even the European Union, "and that in turn will mean the end of the Kyoto Protocol," he warned.
Continuing to ignore the issue will only lead to greater confrontation, he added.
The so-called Petersberg Climate Dialogue is the highest-level gathering of politicians on climate since Copenhagen. The two-and-a-half day closed door sessions ends tomorrow.
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