Kyoto and the Blair Switch

28 November 2005

Kyoto and the Blair Switch

Gwynne Dyer

If the world were run by scientists, by the time the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Montreal ends on 9 December we would have global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 or 30 percent in the follow-on period to the Kyoto agreement, which expires in 2012. But it won’t happen: the Bush blockade and the absence of China and India were probably enough to block agreement anyway, and now there is also the Blair Switch.

The original Kyoto accord, negotiated in the mid-1990s when climate change seemed a much less urgent problem, mandated average cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of less than 6 percent from the 1990 level by 2012, and only obliged industrial countries to comply. It was really only meant to serve as a precedent for later agreements that would impose deeper cuts and bring in developing countries like China and India, whose economies had only recently begun to grow rapidly.

By the turn of the century, it was clear that those countries were becoming a much bigger part of the problem: China now opens a new coal-burning power station every two weeks, and will overtake the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide by 2025. International financial incentives might have persuaded the newly industrialising countries to invest in low-carbon alternatives and rein in their soaring emissions without curbing economic growth, but the Bush administration’s defection from the Kyoto agreement in 2001 scuppered that possibility.

The Bush administration’s hatred of internationally mandated emission limits is largely ideological. It insists that they would destroy the American economy, but in fact the US has a relatively energy-efficient economy whose greenhouse gas emissions only grew 13.3 percent between 1990 and 2003. It would have considerably less trouble in complying with the

Kyoto rules than neighbouring Canada, whose emissions grew by 24.4 percent in the same period.

The accord finally came into effect early this year after Russia ratified it (despite intense American pressure not to), and only America and Australia remain outside it among the industrialised countries. It was already high time to start negotiating the next round of cuts and bring the big developing countries into the treaty, for climate change was moving much faster than anticipated.

Arctic sea ice, which normally covers an area about the size of Australia, has shrunk by almost 20 percent over the past quarter-century, and the rate of loss is accelerating. Tropical storms have doubled in destructive potential over the past thirty years because of ocean warming, according to a recent article in “Nature” by Prof. Kerry Emmanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And the steady rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues, from 270 parts per million in pre-industrial times to 379 pm today and 400 ppm by 2015.

At 500 ppm, which we will reach by 2060 at the present rate and far sooner if the newly industrialising countries don’t accept emission targets, the Greenland icecap melts and all the world’s coastal cities drown. As Lord Ron Oxburgh, the geologist who recently retired as chairman of Shell Oil, said in June: “If we start NOW, not in ten or fifteen years’ time, we have a chance of hitting those targets. But we’ve got to start now. We have no time to lose.” We are not going to start now.

In August, the Bush administration persuaded China, India, Australia, Japan and South Korea to sign up for a rival pact, the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, that fixes no emission targets and talks only of encouraging private industry to develop low-emission technologies and transfer them to industrialising countries. But if there are no targets, where’s the incentive?

As Shell, BP and eleven other companies wrote to British Prime Minister Tony Blair last May: “Governments tend to feel limited in their ability to introduce new policies for reducing emissions because they fear business resistance, while companies are unable to take their low-carbon solutions to scale because of lack of long-term policies.” Lord Oxburgh put it more bluntly: “What we don’t want to see is in two years’ time the government simply becoming bored with climate change after we’ve invested a lot of our shareholders’ money.” Give us the limits and we’ll do the job.

Now even Tony Blair, long the main champion for Kyoto among the G8 leaders, has effectively declared the treaty dead. In September, sitting on a platform with Condoleezza Rice, he announced that he was “changing my

thinking about this”, and no longer wanted the world’s nations to negotiate international treaties on climate change. “The truth is, no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in light of a long-term environmental problem,” he said — not even one that he used to call “the single most important issue we face as a global community.” The only hope, Blair concluded, echoing Bush’s position, lay in new science and technology.

Given these grave new blows to the basic Kyoto notion that emission limits and new technologies go hand in hand, it’s probably pointless to expect the Montreal conference that opened on Monday to be more than a holding operation. Nobody will be aiming at 30 percent cuts in CO2 emissions in 2012-2020. Just agree to meet again in a year or two, and wait for more environmental disasters to change people’s minds.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“The Bush…period”; and “As Shell…the job”)