Life after the Kyoto Protocol

  • 14/05/2005

All politicians and scientists (except George Bush and his group of climate-skeptic scientists) accept climate change is now inevitable and that it will adversely, perhaps devastatingly, impact societies and economies. Just how much damage, they do not know. Just how this devastation will occur, they are beginning to find out. Just who will be worst affected, they can only hazard a guess. But all agree that the poor in poor countries are most vulnerable.

The question is no longer whether global warming is for real or not. The question is what the world is going to do about it. The world began negotiating, 15 years ago, to find ways of reducing emissions. It was agreed, then as now, that emissions are proportional to the wealth nations have accumulated. It was incumbent on the rich to curtail emissions. This, it was agreed, would create the ecological and economic space for the developing South to grow. And space to pollute, for carbon dioxide emissions are inextricable from economic growth.

All this is known. After years of frenetic negotiations the first agreement to limit the emissions of the rich - the Kyoto Protocol - has recently come into effect. Under this agreement the industrialised world, other than renegades usa and Australia, have agreed to cut emissions by roughly 6 per cent over 1990 levels by 2008-2012. What is brewing now is: what is life like after Kyoto?

The usa will not be party to the protocol, which its government - Republican or Democrat - calls fatally flawed. Flawed, they say, because it will cost them jobs. But also because, say Bush and his Senate colleagues, it leaves out the big polluters China and India.

Life after Kyoto, then, seems predictable. Europe, Japan and other protocol-compliant nations will argue they have done their bit to avert climate change. That now, their painful efforts to cut emissions, restructure their economies, will come to naught if others do not join. The protocol-noncompliant will hide behind the villains, whose energy needs are expanding so evidently that they can only ask for more. Thus the next round belongs to Asia where, by hook or by crook, the two countries whose emissions are the bugbear of many will be under the scanner.

But before we can discuss Kyoto plus, let us do a small reality check. The world now accepts it would be prudent, indeed imperative, to ensure temperature rise does not exceed 2 degree Celsius in the coming decades. (Interestingly, it was earlier agreed that 1 degree Celsius change is what the world should work on. That being unachievable, the target was moved conveniently). Under this target, the world needs to keep the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and equivalent greenhouse gases, well below 550 ppm, or parts per million. (Again, most scientists say this is too lax; the threshold is actually 450 ppm.) Under both scenarios, the cuts are deep. They are also urgent: between 15-20 per cent reduction in global emissions in the more risky option within the next 50 years, at the very least.

Where do we stand? Lets take the uk, as an example of a compliant nation. Its prime minister believes combating climate change is at the top of his agenda. He quite rightly says that for global leadership, his country must "demonstrate first at home" what can be done to reduce emissions. The government has set an ambitious 20 per cent domestic target, exceeding the protocol's target. Over the past 10 years or so, emissions have remained below the target, even as the economy has grown. Here was a model of how the climate crisis could be won, painlessly.

But the bubble burst last month. Estimates released by the government say that emissions have increased over the past 2 years and that uk could exceed the Kyoto target and is seriously off track in meeting the domestic goal. What happened?

In 1999, when the Kyoto Protocol was being negotiated, the uk was already complaint with its target, with emissions 14.5 per cent below its 1990 levels. The reason: in the early 1990s, the country had switched to cheap North Sea gas and made gains in efficiency of running power plants. It did not have to do very much to meet its target, except ensure that its climate gains were not lost.

But in recent years, even as the price of imported coal has fallen, the same climate-compliant government has done everything it can to protect jobs in its domestic sector. As a result, 2004 emissions increased by 1.5 per cent over the previous year. The fallacy of the emission cuts is brought out most strongly by Friends of the Earth (foe), a global advocacy group, which calculates the uk government's much-touted target of meeting 10 per cent of its electricity needs though renewable energy would lead to emission savings of 2.5 million tonnes of carbon equivalent annually. But just in 12 months, says foe, with the shift back to coal and the little else done to control emissions of transport, the annual emissions have increased by 2.3 million tonnes. In other words, the long term and still unattainable renewable energy target has been wiped out by one year's increase itself. The fact, then, is that the uk had to do very little to meet its Kyoto target and even that didn't happen. Deep cuts can be forgotten.

Climate experts calculate that, given the combined effect of the us' opt-out and concessions under the Kyoto Protocol, by 2012 - a good 30 years after the world began discussing climate change - the world may be able to achieve just a one per cent reduction in the emissions of the industrialised North. In other words, it will do practically nothing

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