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Kyoto Protocol

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Climate Talks: Coasting Towards Disaster

9 December 2012

Climate Talks: Coasting Towards Disaster

By Gwynne Dyer

They made some progress at the annual December round of the international negotiations on controlling climate change, held this year in Qatar. They agreed that the countries that cause the warming should compensate the ones that suffer the most from it. The principle, known as the Loss and Damage mechanism, has no numbers attached to it, but it’s a step forward. The only step forward, unfortunately.

In the first phase of these talks, which concluded with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, the emphasis was on “mitigation”; that is, on stopping the warming by cutting human emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases”. That made good sense, but they didn’t get anywhere. Fifteen years later, emissions are still rising, not falling.

So gradually the emphasis shifted to “adaptation”. If we can’t agree on measures to stop the average global temperature from going up, can we learn to live with it? What’s the plan for developing new crops to withstand the droughts and high temperatures that are coming? What’s the plan for coping with massive floods that drown river valleys and inundate coastlines?

Well, there are no such plans in most places, so the emphasis has shifted again, to compensation. Terrible things will happen to poor countries, so who pays for them? In principle, says the new Loss and Damage mechanism, the rich countries that are responsible for the warming pay. But the “mechanism” has no method for assessing the damage or allocating the blame, so it will become a lawyers’ playground of little use to anybody else.

Besides, the rich countries are going to be fully committed financially in just covering the cost of their own damages. Consider, for example, the $60 billion that President Barack Obama has just requested from the US Congress to deal with the devastation left by Superstorm Sandy. In practice, there will be very little left to compensate the poor countries for their disasters, even if the rich ones have good intentions.

So if mitigation is a lost cause, and if adaptation will never keep up with the speed at which the climate is going bad, and if compensation is a nice idea whose time will never come, what is the next stage in these climate talks? Prayer? Emigration to another planet? Mass suicide?

There will be a fourth stage to the negotiations, but first we will have to wait until rising temperatures, falling food production and catastrophic storms shake governments out of their present lethargy. That probably won’t happen until quite late in the decade – and by then, at the current rate of emissions, we will be well past the point at which we could hold the rise in average global temperature down to two degrees C (3.6 degrees F).

We will, in fact, be on course for 3, 4 or even 5 degrees C of warming, because beyond plus 2 degrees, the warming that we have already created will trigger “feedbacks”: natural sources of carbon dioxide emissions like melting permafrost WHICH WE CANNOT SHUT OFF.

So then, when it’s too late, everybody will really want a deal, but just cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough any more. We will need some way to hold the temperature down while we deal with our emissions problem, or else the temperature goes so high that mass starvation sets in. The rule of thumb is that we lose ten percent of global food production for every rise in average global temperature of one degree C.

There probably is a way to stop the warming from passing plus 2 degrees C and triggering the feedbacks, during the decades it will take to get our emissions back down. It’s called “geo-engineering”: direct human intervention in the climate system. Our greenhouse gas emissions are an inadvertent example of geo-engineering that is pushing the climate in the wrong direction. Another, deliberate kind of geo-engineering may be needed to stop it.

Geo-engineering to hold the heat down is quite possible, though the undesirable side-effects could be very large. The biggest problem is that it’s relatively cheap: dozens of governments could afford to do it – and just one government, acting alone, could do it to the whole atmosphere.

So the fourth phase of the climate talks, probably starting late this decade, will be about when it is time to start geo-engineering, and what techniques should be used, and who controls the process. They won’t agree on that either, so things will drag on further until some government, desperate to save its people from starvation, decides to do it alone, without global agreement. That could cause a major war, of course.

So we had better hope that neutral observers like the fossil fuel industries are right in insisting that global warming is a fraud. Maybe all those scientists really are making it up just to get more money in research grants. That would be a happy ending, so fingers crossed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Besides…intentions”)


Getting Radical About Climate Change

14 December 2006

Getting Radical About Climate Change: The Shape of Things to Come

By Gwynne Dyer

Here’s the plan. Everybody in the country will get the same allowance for how much carbon dioxide they can emit each year, and every time they buy some product that involves carbon dioxide emissions — filling their car, paying their utility bills, buying an airline ticket — carbon points are deducted from their credit or debit cards. Like Air Miles, only in reverse.

So if you ride a bike everywhere, insulate your home, and don’t travel much, you can sell your unused points back to the system. And if you use up your allowance before the end of the year, then you will have to buy extra points from the system.

This is no lunatic proposal from the eco-radical fringe. It is on the verge of becoming British government policy, and environment secretary David Miliband is behind it one hundred percent. In fact, he is hoping to launch a pilot scheme quite soon, with the goal of moving to a comprehensive national scheme of carbon rationing within five years.

Ever since a delegation of scientists persuaded prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a scientist herself, to start taking climate change seriously back in the late 1980s, British governments of both parties have been in the forefront on the issue, but Miliband’s initiative breaks new ground. It has, says Miliband, “a simplicity and beauty that would reward carbon thrift.”

Previous emissions-trading systems — the sulfur dioxide system mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act in the United States, the 25-country European Union scheme for trading CO2 emission permits launched in 2005, the system for trading emission allowances at national level among developed countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol — all envisage large industrial organisations or even entire countries making the deals. Miliband is bringing it down to the personal level.

A huge share of total emissions is driven by the decisions of individual consumers. Miliband thinks that the least intrusive, most efficient way of shaping those decisions is to set up a system that tracks everybody’s use of goods and services that produce a lot of greenhouse gases, and rewards the thrifty while imposing higher costs on the profligate. And there is no time to lose: the world’s carbon emissions have to stop growing within ten to fifteen years, he says, and Britain must cut its total carbon emissions by 60 percent in the next thirty or forty years.

“We are in a dangerous place now,” he told the Guardian newspaper on 11 December, “and it is going to be very difficult to get into a less dangerous place. The science is getting worse faster than the politics is getting better. People know the technology exists to get a lot of this done…but there is a huge chasm of mistrust between countries about how to do this….The developing countries won’t take on any carbon reduction targets until they believe the countries that have caused the problem do so.”

The science certainly is “getting worse,” in the sense that every forecast is worse than the one before. The most recent assessment of the state of the Arctic by the International Panel on Climate Change, whose full fourth report is due next year, was published early in the journal “Geophysical Research Letters” last week because its forecast was so alarming.

If current trends persist, the scientists reported, the Arctic Ocean will be entirely ice-free in the summertime not in 2080, as previous forecasts suggested, but by 2040, just thirty-three years from now. Then the dark ocean surface absorbs much more heat than the reflective ice did, and another element of feedback kicks in, and the speed of warming increases again….

Those in the know are very frightened, but there is still that “huge chasm of mistrust.” The developing countries that are only now beginning to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases look at the mountain of past emissions produced by the developed countries, the source of most current climate change, and they want the rich countries to cut back very deeply – deeply enough to leave the developing countries some room to raise their consumption without dooming us all to runaway climate change.

That’s where the long-range target of 60 percent emission cuts for Britain comes from. Britain only produces 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so a 60 percent cut in Britain alone is still only a drop in the bucket, but the aim is to set an example: see, we can do this without impoverishing ourselves, so other developed countries can, too. And if they do, then a deal to control the growth of emissions in the developing countries is within reach.

So individual carbon credit accounts for all, and if you want to do things that produce more carbon dioxide than your annual allowance, you pay for it. The frugal and the poor can sell their unused credits back into the system — and every year or so, as the average carbon efficiency of transport or food production or power generation improves a little bit, the size of the free personal carbon allowance is reduced a little bit. It is, I suspect, the shape of things to come.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Ever since…level”)

Russia and Kyoto

29 September 2003

Russia and Kyoto

By Gwynne Dyer

President George W. Bush did not instantly kill the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change just by pulling the United States out of the treaty in March, 2001, but it did mean that every other major industrial country on the planet had to ratify it before it could come into effect. He then proceeded to turn the screws on those who might be induced to defect, and this week in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin started to crack. If Russia pulls out, the treaty dies.

Addressing an international conference on the science of climate change in Moscow on 29 September, Putin openly said for the first time that Russia might never ratify the treaty. He is considering where Russia’s interests lie, and there is not even a timetable any more. Since neither the science nor the economics have changed since Putin declared two years ago that Moscow would ratify the treaty, however, there are grounds for suspecting that his motive for postponing a decision is mainly political.

There can be no treaty without Russia, because it does not come into effect until 55 countries that together account for 55 percent of the industrialised countries’ emissions of carbon dioxide have ratified it. Over a hundred countries have ratified it already, but since the US alone accounts for a quarter of the whole world’s CO2 emissions, Russia must ratify to clear the 55 percent threshold. So why is Moscow moving away from a decision?

Putin’s public explanation was the need for further study. “(Critics of Kyoto) often say, half-jokingly and half seriously, that Russia is a northern country, and if temperatures get warmer by two or three degrees Celsius it’s not that bad,” he told the conference. “We could spend less on warm coats, and agricultural experts say that grain harvests would increase.” But surely he did not really mean that it’s fine for other people’s countries to turn into deserts or be drowned by rising sea levels so long as it’s good for Russia — and besides, it is far from clear that global warming would benefit Russia.

If the northern limit for grain-growing moved a couple of hundred kilometres further north all across the immense east-west breadth of Russia, it would add the equivalent of another France to the world’s agricultural resources. Since other countries’ food production would be falling at the same time, there would be high demand for Russian exports. But the real benefits and costs of climate change in Russia are not so easily calculated.

A report by scientists from Kassel University in Germany and Moscow State University early this year rejected the assumption that more warmth and rain automatically mean bigger Russian harvests. Some northerly agricultural regions would do better, but established farming areas in the south and west would suffer badly from excessive heat and recurrent drought. And Putin acknowledged this conclusion in his speech: “We must also think what consequences we will face in certain regions where there will be droughts and floods.”

So why has the Russian government given credibility to pro-global warming scientists like Alexander Bedritski and Yuri Israel, the Russian organisers of the current conference, by having President Putin address it personally? Especially when Russia could earn a lot of money by selling its surplus carbon emission rights to other industrialised countries that are having trouble meeting their target of a 5 percent reduction in their 1990 level of emissions by 2010. The answer, almost certainly, is international politics.

Like most European leaders, Putin is appalled by the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but he is trying hard to retain good relations with the most important country on the planet. Having openly opposed Washington on the invasion of Iraq and the Russian sale of nuclear power-plants to Iran, he doesn’t want to incur its wrath on Kyoto as well. On the other hand, as a major trading partner and perhaps one day a candidate member of the European Union, Russia does not want to annoy EU leaders who almost unanimously back the Kyoto accord. Then there’s the need not to alienate any Russian voters before the parliamentary elections in December.

So Putin’s best strategy on all counts is to delay, claiming the need for more time to study the issue. If Bush goes down to defeat in November, 2004, Russia will promptly ratify Kyoto. If the Bush administration and all its policies survive, Putin will then have a momentous decision to make about whether Europe or America is the more important partner for Russia — but many countries would face hard decisions at that point.

Why is the Kyoto deal worth saving, given that the reduction in carbon emissions needed to stop the warming process is more like 60 percent than the 5 percent mandated by the treaty? Because this is the first time in international law that countries have accepted legally binding obligations to shape their entire economy in ways that do not harm the global environment.

It took tens of thousands of people more than a decade to negotiate the Kyoto accord, and it is the template for all the far more rigorous treaties that will have to be made in future as global warming bites deeper and the political will for deeper emission cuts emerges. Lose this one, and we start from scratch again — but we may not have an extra decade to spare.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“If…floods”)