THE POLITICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE EXPLAINED
THE POLITICS OF CLIMATE CHANGE EXPLAINED
Fred Pearce charts a course through the Kyoto Protocol and efforts to bring it into force
What is the Kyoto Protocol?
It is the first legally binding treaty aimed at cutting emissions of the main greenhouse gases believed to contribute to global warming. More than 150 nations signed it back in December 1997 at a meeting in Kyoto. But they left much of the detail about how it would be implemented to future talks. These dragged on, reaching a crisis in The Hague in November 2000, when the US and the European Union failed to agree and talks broke down. George W. Bush was installed as President soon afterwards, and announced that he was pulling the US out of the deal altogether. Since the US is the source of a quarter of emissions of greenhouse gases that was a big blow, but the other nations decided to carry on and they finally reached agreement in Marrakech in November 2001.
Under the terms of the protocol, industrialised nations have committed themselves to a range of targets to reduce emissions between 1990, the base year, and 2010. World targets range from an average 8 per cent cut for most of Europe to a maximum 10 per cent increase for Iceland and an 8 per cent increase for Australia. (The US originally committed itself to a 7 per cent cut). The members of the European Union have agreed to share out their entitlement so that countries such as Ireland and Greece can increase their emissions while Britain, Germany and some others face tougher cuts.
The next step is the ratification of the treaty in national legislatures. Only when the great majority of industrial nations have ratified will the protocol come into legal force. Many countries, including the European Union, have promised to do this by August 2002. But in early 2002 Russia and Japan still seemed to be wavering.
Why did it take so long to sort out the small print of the deal?
Everyone got in a tangle over the so-called “flexibility mechanisms” that were intended to make the targets more attainable. When it came to it, the governments couldn’t find enough common ground. In retrospect, that’s hardly surprising, given the complexities involved and the loose language of the original agreement in Kyoto.
The Kyoto talks agreed that countries could meet some targets by encouraging the natural environment to soak up more CO2 rather than by cutting emissions. Top of the list of these so-called “carbon sinks” was forest planting. Countries could qualify for carbon credits by planting forests that soaked up CO2. They could offset these credits against higher emissions. The trouble was that the European Union came into the talks believing that these activities should be a small part of meeting targets, whereas the US, Russia, Canada and some other countries thought they should be a major part. The latter group largely got its way, even though the US withdrew from proceedings.
It was finally agreed that countries will be able to claim some carbon credits for planting forests in developing countries. And they will also be able to allow countries to claim credit for activities such as soil conservation, which will allow more carbon to be soaked up in soils.
How does that work?
The idea is that soil conservation initiatives, such as low-till farming, could trap more carbon in the soil. Deep ploughing allows oxygen deep into soils, speeding up the decay of organic matter and the release of CO2. Less ploughing slows these processes. By using these methods countries such as Canada and Australia believe they can soak up tens of millions of tonnes of carbon each year by 2010.
Is carbon trading part of the deal?
Yes, very much so. On the face of it, countries ought to clear up their own messes. Countries that emit large amounts of greenhouse gases ought to make the biggest reductions. But, in terms of cost effectiveness, that may not be the best way forward. Some countries can reduce their emissions much more cheaply than others. A country with lots of potential for wind power or other sources of renewable energy, for instance, might develop them on a large scale. They could reduce their emissions far more than required under Kyoto Protocol targets. Carbon trading will allow them to do this and then sell any spare rights to emit CO2 to a country with fewer of these options. But the fear is that some countries may find themselves with spare credits to sell just because their economies have slowed down, which would undermine the whole purpose of the protocol.
Is this the hot air issue?
Correct. At Kyoto, Russia and Ukraine were given the right to emit as much greenhouse gas in 2010 as they did in 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall fell. But since then their industries have collapsed and today their emissions are as much as 30 per cent below 1990 levels. Environmentalists have dubbed this “hot air”. Japan, Canada and perhaps others would like to buy up Russia’s spare permits. During the talks in The Hague, Russia promised to invest any money it made from these transactions in clean energy. But sceptics still see hot-air trading as a Trojan Horse for undermining the protocol.
What other options do industrialised countries have to take action abroad?
The main one is the Clean Development Mechanism. This allows industrialised countries to claim credit for various activities in developing countries. It could become a major engine for getting clean energy technologies into poorer countries, so heading them off the dirty path to industrialisation that the rich nations took. After a long battle, it was decided nuclear energy will not qualify for the list of approved technologies under this mechanism. And the rules are biased towards small energy projects – solar cell systems, for example.
Do developing countries have any obligations under the protocol?
Only in general terms. After all, they are mostly innocent victims of global warming, not the perpetrators. They face major climate changes while having per-capita emissions much lower than industrialised countries. Under the protocol, developing countries have to report on their emissions, but many want to go further and help industrialised countries meet their targets. The protocol allows industrialised countries to plant “carbon sink” forests in the tropics, for instance, where they will grow faster. They can also invest in clean energy technologies in the developing world, and claim carbon credits for doing so.
The US has demanded, both before and after Kyoto, that developing countries should accept their own specific emissions targets – even if those targets allowed emissions to increase. While that idea was quietly dropped by the Clinton administration, it might well become a crunch issue if and when the US decides to return to the protocol.
So is the Kyoto Protocol a good deal or a bad one?
As agreed in Kyoto, it was intended to cut emissions by industrialised countries by an average of slightly over 5 per cent by the year 2010. By the end of talks in Marrakech, analysts put the expected actual cut, after allowing for spurious sinks and “hot air” trading, at perhaps 1.5 per cent. That isn’t much, but it’s far better than the soaring increases that could have been expected if there’d been no deal at all. Perhaps the biggest immediate concern among scientists is that the protocol could fall apart because it will be hard to police, particularly the clauses on carbon sinks. But the desire to get an agreement at all costs finally overrode such concerns.
Will the Kyoto measures solve the problem of global warming?
They will hardly scratch the surface. The protocol’s scientific advisers, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, say it will buy us 10 years at most. To halt global warming will need much more radical measures. The panel says that the world has to agree a maximum concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A reasonable target might be twice pre-industrial levels, which works out at 50 per cent above today’s levels. Because the most important greenhouse gas, CO2, hangs around in the atmosphere for a century or more, this means substantially lowering emissions over the next few decades. Cutting emissions by 60 per cent is a suggested figure.
That sounds like a long-term strategy. But temperatures are rising fast now. Can we do anything in the short term?
The Kyoto Protocol was drawn up with the long term as the primary focus. In essence, the protocol assumes that what we really need to worry about is the climate in a century’s time, not today. This was hardly a considered decision: in fact it happened almost by accident, because of the way the protocol lumps together the six different greenhouse gases covered by its rules. Each of these gases has a different greenhouse potency and spends a different amount of time in the atmosphere. CO2 sticks around for about a century. Methane, the second most important greenhouse gas, generally lasts in the atmosphere for about a decade. But while it’s there it is many times more potent.
The protocol’s emissions targets lump together the six different gases and compare their relative warming effect over a period of a century. This “hundred-year rule” has the effect of downgrading the importance of methane, and giving only small credit to countries that try to cut methane emissions.
As it is drafted under the “hundred year rule”, the protocol gives a country that reduces its methane emissions by a tonne 20 times as much credit as for reducing CO2 emissions by a tonne. That reflects the relative importance of the gases over a hundred-year time frame. If the protocol had instead adopted a 20-year time frame, methane would have got 60 times as much credit, tonne for tonne, as CO2. Countries would have had much more incentive to cut methane emissions, whether from the guts of cows, leaking pipelines or fermenting landfill sites.
A 20-year rule would reflect more accurately the importance of methane in warming us today. And it would certainly encourage action to reduce methane emissions. Some scientists favour that approach as a way of heading off global warming in the short term. But this dimension got left out of the political discussions over the Kyoto Protocol, and few ministers who signed up for the protocol realised its significance. It may be that next time targets are set, there will be a new perspective – perhaps even a separate methane target – to deal with the short term.
So what should we be doing?
There is clearly a case for short-term action to reduce emissions of fast-acting greenhouse gases like methane. Landfills can be re-engineered to reduce emissions. Cows can be given less gas-inducing feed. Leaks in gas pipelines can be plugged. And so on.
Technically, we are going to have to find many more ways of producing energy without burning fossil fuels – the so-called carbon-free economy. Politically, we are going to have to find a way of doing so which doesn’t affect the growing economies of the developing nations, whose responsibility for the build-up of greenhouse gases so far has been minimal. Some people think this will require moving towards equal pollution rights for every citizen on the planet, a policy endorsed by Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution earlier this year.
But long-term, there is no question that CO2 is the big issue. We are going to have to find many more ways of producing energy without burning fossil fuels – the so-called carbon-free economy. Politically, we are going to have to find a way of doing that in a way which doesn’t damage the growing economies of the developing nations, whose responsibility for the build-up of greenhouse gases so far has been minimal.
Some people think this will require moving towards equal pollution rights for everyone on the planet, a policy endorsed last year by Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. The Brazilian government has also proposed that there should be a historical element in such an arrangement. This seems fair enough since most of the CO2 put into the air during the Victorian era is still there, helping to warm the planet.
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