Kyoto Comes into Effect

6 February 2005

Kyoto Comes into Effect

By Gwynne Dyer

That sound you don’t hear in the street outside is the crowds who aren’t cheering to celebrate the entry into effect of the Kyoto Protocol on 16 February. Thirteen years after the Climate Change Convention was agreed at the Earth Summit in 1992, and eight years after each country’s targets for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions were defined in a marathon haggling session at Kyoto, they are finally starting to do something about global warming. No wonder the euphoria has worn off a bit.

It almost didn’t happen at all. Under the treaty, industrialised countries responsible for at least 55 percent of total rich-country emissions had to ratify the treaty before it went into effect. (Otherwise, the minority who did enforce Kyoto’s expensive emission-control measures would be at a disadvantage competing against the majority who didn’t.) Once President Bush “unsigned” the treaty, it meant that practically everybody else had to ratify, since the US alone accounts for 36 percent of the industrial world’s emissions.

Despite the best efforts of the Bush administration to sabotage the treaty entirely by persuading other countries not to ratify either, they almost all did. Only four of the original 34 developed countries at the talks — the US, its faithful sidekick Australia, and Monaco and Liechtenstein — have refused to take part. Russia’s assent was vital, however, since its own emissions are second only to those of the United States.

Moscow stalled for an extra two years while it considered whether to annoy the Americans or the Europeans, but it finally jumped down off the fence last autumn. Its decision to ratify was driven partly by the fact that it could make a lot of money off “emissions trading” if it adhered to the treaty, but its motives don’t matter. So there it is at last, thirteen years in the making: the Kyoto protocol What can it do for us?

It is certainly not going to stop global warming in the short term. All the greenhouse gases that will cause the next thirty years of damage have already left the chimneys and the tail-pipes and are moving up through the atmosphere now.

That’s worrisome, because the climate conference at the United Kingdom Meteorological Office in Exeter heard last week that the West Antarctic Ice Shelf, previously seen as stable, is probably starting to melt, which would ultimately raise sea levels worldwide by 16 feet (3 metres). And a study by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction (just published in “Nature”), showed that the impact of man-made greenhouse gases on climate may be twice as great as we previously thought.

It was the Met Office’s study that really rattled everybody. It concluded that if man-made greenhouse gas emissions just doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the 260 parts per million of the pre-industrial era to 560 ppm – and we’re about a third of the way there already – the resulting global temperature rise could go beyond anything the planet has experienced since the time of the dinosaurs. The upper limit of likely outcomes is not 6 degrees centigrade (10.4 F) hotter, as previously thought; it’s eleven (19.9) degrees.

“If we go back to the Cretaceous, which is a hundred million years ago” Professor Bob Spicer of the Open University told the Independent, “the best estimate of the global mean temperature was about 6 degrees C (10.4 F) higher than present. So 11 degrees C (19.9 F)is quite substantial, and if this is right we would be going into a realm that we really don’t have much evidence for even in the rocks.”

Measured against such potentially catastrophic consequences, the modest controls on greenhouse emissions ordained by the Kyoto protocol — a few percentage points less than the 1990 level, for most countries — seem like a total waste of time. The cuts are shallow and will not even be enforced until 2008-2012, the world’s leading polluter, the United States, has opted out, and developing countries, including the rapidly industrialising Asian giants, China and Japan, don’t even have to stop increasing their emissions.

And yet it is worthwhile. It is the first legally binding international treaty on the environment, with a system of auditing greenhouse gas emissions for each country and financial penalties for those that do not meet their targets. Getting countries to surrender their national sovereignty over domestic industrial policy in this way was so unprecedented — but so vital to dealing with a global problem like climate change — that the equally painful question of deeper cuts was left until the next round. In an ideal world it would all have been done at once, but governments only have so much political capital to spend.

Now, however, the principle is established, and the next round of talks, to set the post-2012 targets and rules, will have to agree on much deeper cuts in emissions than this time. Moreover, the developing countries, which were exempted from the first-round controls because the existing problem was caused almost entirely by the old industrialised countries, will have to accept emission control targets too. It’s cumbersome, because human politics is inherently cumbersome, but it is heading in the right direction.

If the measures we take today can stop global warming by 2050, say, with a temperature rise of only 2 degrees, global warming will still be a very big problem, but it probably won’t be an utter catastrophe. That is what Kyoto is about, so get out there and start cheering.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“It was…the rocks”)