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Montreal scorecard – Kyoto 157, United States 1

Camilla Toulmin
13 December 2005

The score looks good, but what has the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal really achieve? In face of United States obstructiveness, everyone else feels pleased to have ended up with some kind of an agreement. The political argument has been firmly won, and the US isolated as a minority of one. But there may well be a repeat challenge over the next few years, as the George W Bush administration seeks further ways to block negotiations.

The result of Montreal is that the Kyoto protocol is up and running, with agreement on the rules and procedures for its operations. This is certainly progress, especially when set against the attempts earlier this year to pronounce Kyoto stillborn. Yet the goals set out in the first commitment period to 2012 are not nearly enough to tackle the growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and rich-country governments are clearly having a hard time reaching even these targets.

Camilla Toulmin is the director of the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED), a policy-research NGO based in London.

Also by Camilla Toulmin in openDemocracy:

“Africa: why climate change matters” (May 2005)

“The G8 and climate change: a campaigners’ scorecard” (July 2005) – with Saleemul Huq

“Why Montreal matters” (December 2005)

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A report by Britain’s Sustainable Development Commission shows an increase in the country’s emissions since 1997, despite the Labour government seeking to portray itself in a “green” light. The Kyoto targets may be met, but not the aspiration to cut levels by 20% by 2010. The government has been arguing with the European Commission that the Emission Trading Scheme has set targets too high, rather than welcoming these as a spur to innovation.

The SDC is urging the British government to meet domestic emissions targets to encourage international action on climate change. Its report calls for urgent action to make up an annual shortfall of at least 10 million tonnes in carbon reductions, through radical new charges on vehicles and aviation, greater household energy efficiency and a carbon-neutral public sector.

Next steps for negotiators

Parties to the Kyoto protocol will now begin discussions of what will follow 2012, when the first commitment period comes to an end. For Annex 1 countries (the main rich nations minus US and Australia) this will involve tighter targets and a longer-term framework to create stable expectations for business and other investors. For large, newly industrialising countries (like China, India and Brazil) some form of commitment must be sought to create a binding timetable of emissions control. In each case, a deal is needed which combines access to technology in exchange for political commitment on control measures.

For the poorest, least-developed countries, controls on greenhouse gases may be shelved for the next decade, given the very low levels of income and emissions involved. Rather, they will need help in adapting to adverse impacts and access to Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) measures.

Non-Kyoto countries have agreed to further talks about development, technology and adapting to climate change, but without these talks leading necessarily to any new commitments. Essentially, it brings under the United Nations umbrella something similar to the Asia-Pacific partnership on climate change which the Bush administration announced in July 2005 as a transparent anti-Kyoto initiative.

A time to engage with the US

The climate-change negotiations are like a particularly complicated game of four-dimensional chess, each piece on the board representing a different set of interests, trying to calculate an elaborate set of possible moves by those on other parts of the board. It’s a game spread out over time, with uncertainties about the rules and whether there will even be a game to play in future. Equally it’s a game in which the main players are also involved in many other games at the same time, hence distracted and needing to trade off wins and losses elsewhere.

How can political leaders be made to focus particularly hard on this particular game, and make climate change the big one? How can climate-change activists and campaigners work with citizens and business interests in key countries, like the United States and Australia, to push climate change up the political agenda?

There’s an emerging coalition of interests in the US to test ways of tackling greenhouse-gas emissions, at city and state level. Despite the federal government arguing that such measures may be unconstitutional, there seems sufficient room for manoeuvre for pilot schemes to start. Once these get going, people in neighbouring states may realise that they’re missing out on something vital for the future.

What do we really need?

Governments need to take firmer action now to embrace a renewable energy future. It is striking that leading corporations as well as citizen groups are urging this. As Jonathon Porritt argues in his new book Capitalism As If The World Matters, people who want to shift the public agenda must learn to express ideas about reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in a positive way – by emphasising the gains of new, clean technology and the great investment opportunities they will bring.

As Porritt notes, one obstacle to achieving necessary change is the fact that many of the losers will be well-established big corporations (like the oil and gas giants, and the huge electrical power generators) while many of the winners from such a shift are small, emerging producers of new technology, which lack the same presence, muscle and lobbying power.

We need courage to take on the giants and to support those without voice whose interests lie in the future. We must also work with major interests – like insurance companies, pension funds and real-estate institutions, many of which are counting the cost of weather-related damage.

Also in openDemocracy, a major debate on the politics of climate change – with contributions from writers (Ian McEwan, Bill McKibben), scientists and science writers (David King, Stephan Harrison, Dave Frame, Chris Mooney, Carol Turley), policy analysts (Mayer Hillman, Tom Burke, John Ashton) and activists (Sophie Harding, Angel Green, Rubens Born).

A useful guide to the debate is by its editor, Caspar Henderson, here

More recently, openDemocracy writers assessed climate-change-related issues in the approach to the Montreal summit:

Ian Christie, “When the levee breaks” (September 2005)

Dáithí Stone & Dave Frame, “Hurricanes, global warming and global politics” (September 2005)

Simon Retallack, “Tony Blair and climate change: a change of heart?” (November 2005)

To bring the new industrial powers into the global agreement on cutting greenhouse gases requires credibility – and that can only come if richer countries take the lead in implementing practical measures themselves, and share the benefits of new technology. Global talks tend to follow a negotiations approach which can encourage a zero-sum mentality. But that doesn’t make sense when collectively we face disaster. As Bo Kjellen, former chairman of the climate-change talks rightly says: “we must build consensus, not stoke up contest. We are all on the same side ultimately, facing dangerous climate change on the opposite side of the table, holding many of the cards….”

It is important to recall that damage is being done today to the incomes and livelihoods of millions of people around the world, many of them in the least-developed countries, who have contributed least to greenhouse-gas emissions yet who are worst hit. People in these poor nations need a fair deal, if they are going to manage the many changes which come with global warming – reduced water availability, changed rainfall patterns, shifting disease incidence, sea-level rise.

That means support for local-level investment and adaptation. It also means making the Clean Development Mechanism and markets in carbon offsets much more accessible to the poor. Currently, the main beneficiaries of the CDM have been large better-off nations with the resources to put together large-scale bids, such as around major power stations. By contrast, many African countries have limited capacity to tap into this market – yet they have much to offer if such offsets can also deliver development benefits (what some call “social carbon”).

The founder of the International Institute for Environment & Development, Barbara Ward, posed the question in 1972: “Are we present at one of those turning points when the human race begins to see itself and its concerns from a new angle of vision and, as a result, finds new openings for action, for courage and for hope?” More than thirty years later, people and governments remain faint-hearted in accepting the need for a step-change in stewardship of what Barbara Ward called our “only one earth”. We need urgently to explore better ways of living together, which build on cooperation not conflict, and which respect diverse cultures and values.

Even while the score of 157 to 1 looks good against the current United States regime, I would not bet on our chances of avoiding dangerous climate change – especially as the US itself is so critical to a cleaner, greener, sustainable future. But it is just possible that we will come to see 28 November- 9 December 2005 in Montreal as the moment when the world agreed a new angle of vision, voting in favour of the 21st century – an epoch of renewable energy – and turning its back on the oil and gas mastodons of the 20th century.

If we can match this renewed commitment to Kyoto with some practical actions, there are many new openings for action, for courage and for hope.

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