The world's climate negotiations in Cancun were faced with deadlock at their outset yesterday after Japan insisted it would not agree to renewing the Kyoto Protocol, the current treaty under which rich countries are cutting their emissions of greenhouse gases.
Kyoto, signed in the Japanese city in 1997, runs out in its current form at the end of 2012, yet its renewal carries enormous symbolic significance for the developing countries – who see it as a sign of good faith by industrialised nations in the fight against global warming – and who are not legally bound by it, as the rich countries are.
Richer countries, led by the European Union and US, would like to replace Kyoto with a treaty that brings all the world's countries into a legally binding pact to cut carbon emissions.
It was over this difference that negotiations collapsed at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen last December. Since then Europe has taken the lead in suggesting a way forward by having two new climate treaties, with Kyoto being renewed, as long as there was a parallel legally binding agreement which brought in all countries, including the US and China.
The Japanese refusal to renew the treaty, the first country to do so, throws this arrangement into jeopardy, and threatens to make a Cancun version of the Copenhagen deadlock likely, with the world further than ever from tackling climate change.
Japan takes the view that it will not agree once more to be legally bound to cut back on its emissions while its economic competitors – China, India and Indonesia (and also the US, which withdrew from Kyoto in 2001) – are not.
In Japan's first statement to the conference, Jun Arima from the ministry of economics, trade and industry insisted Japan wanted "a new single binding instrument with the participation of all major emitters". He said: "Japan will not inscribe its target under the Kyoto Protocol on any conditions or under any circumstances... Discussions focusing on a second commitment period will go nowhere."
The forthrightness of his statement at the outset of two weeks of talks between 194 countries has caused consternation among the G77 (the informal alliance of developing nations). Last year at Copenhagen they refused to give up Kyoto, and if a new Kyoto deal is not on the table at Cancun, it is likely there will no climate deal at all.
British officials in Cancun were trying to ascertain whether Japan's statement was a negotiating tactic. One source said: "It is possible the Japanese are trying to put pressure on the developing countries to start talking seriously about a new climate treaty."