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Kyoto protocol or bust?

About the author
Caspar Henderson was openDemocracy's Globalisation Editor from 2002 to 2005. He is an award-winning writer and journalist on environmental affairs.

Next week the ninth conference of the parties to the climate change convention (COP9) begins in Milan. Government officials, businessmen, bankers and others from dozens of countries will meet for twelve days in Italy's industrial capital to trade ideas, technology and credits under the Kyoto protocol, an arrangement that is intended to start already rich industrial nations on a path to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Why so much interest in something that seems so remote from so many people's everyday lives compared to issues like security, hunger or disease?

The question seems especially pertinent given that even in the best case the protocol will achieve almost insignificant pollution reductions by the participating countries, and it doesn't include the United States, which accounts for a quarter of world emissions, and China, the fastest growing polluter (almost as much heavily-polluting coal-fired generation comes on line in China in one year as the entire installed electricity capacity of the United Kingdom).

Critics of the Kyoto protocol are legion. Their arguments are many, but two of the most conspicuous revolve around cost, benefit and profit. For example, Marlo Lewis of the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, sees it as a predatory trade strategy masquerading as an environmental treaty. From a very different perspective, campaign groups such as Rising Tide , who say that "through its so-called 'flexible mechanisms', the protocol has become just another means of making a profit for [big corporations], whilst climate chaos continues unabated".

Across the Universe

So what to do? First, when thinking about the importance of human-made climate change relative to other global challenges, it's worth taking a step back, as Globolog tried to do earlier this year, and look at the science of climate change.

This journey is one of the most extraordinary chapters in human endeavour, an attempt to understand and behave like adults in a large and still poorly-known universe.

A handy and easily comprehensible set of short articles outlining the latest in what's known and what is uncertain is available in the free archive of New Scientist magazine.

One of the things that quickly becomes apparent is that if Man-made climate change were a gradual process, reversible at any stage, and if everyone directly experienced its consequences in proportion to their contribution to making it happen, then leaving everything to the market (subject only to effective regulation to prevent capture by special interests) would be adequate.

But it's not. Increasingly, evidence suggests there can be sudden changes in climate regime with huge consequences. Some possibilities are poorly understood, but there is an overwhelming case for taking several of them seriously. To take just one example, the oceans may rapidly become more acidic than at any time in the past 300 million years, with consequences that could only be apparent when it is too late to do anything about them.

For this reason, every government in the world, including that of the United States determined back in 1992 to protect the climate system for present and future generations.

The Long and Winding Road

The Kyoto protocol - designed to limit emissions and let the market operate within those constraints - is a product of the early- to mid-1990s, and reflects that different world. It became increasingly apparent during that decade that the US would not reach even the most modest target for emission reductions. Accordingly, the US Senate overwhelmingly rejected the protocol. But the Bush administration, which took power in 2001, is both determined and effective in stalling any measures that could lead to caps on emissions (see, for example the analysis and documentation submitted to the House Government Reform Committee).

Meanwhile, Kyoto has been ratified by 119 countries, including Japan, Canada and all those in the European Union, which represent 44% of rich country emissions (using 1990 as a baseline). Officially, the protocol only comes into force when countries responsible for more than 55% of rich country emissions have ratified it. So without Russia (which is allowed up to 17% of rich country emissions), the protocol is supposedly dead.

But the Europeans and others are forging on regardless. Much the "rest of the world" (except the Russians and Americans) is not only "keeping its nerve over Kyoto" [in the words of the climate and energy specialist Michael Grubb - see The Financial Times 12 November 2003 (paid-for only)], it also sees some real benefits - read 'money' - in doing so. This week, for example, ahead of Milan, the Dutch Development Bank announced it would go carbon neutral.

I Me Mine

At best, Kyoto will make a very small difference to emissions by some of the world's less dynamic economies. It looks like a prime example of what World Bank vice-president Jean-Francois Rischard identifies as a characteristic flaw of global environmental treaties: far too little, and too late because of the sheer time involved in reaching even the most watered-down agreements. Why then support it?

"Getting to an international agreement on climate change is almost impossible. The incentive to free-ride is overwhelming", Oxford University economist Dieter Helm tells Globolog (Dr Helm, a contributor to openDemocracy, describes himself as "a pessimist").

"It is axiomatic, then, that any treaty will be flawed", Helm says. "But it is a miracle we have any kind of international agreement at all, and it should not be abandoned". Without Kyoto, he says, governments in countries like Britain would abandon the small steps - practical in a British context, trivial at the global level - that they are taking. This would even further undermine aspirational goals such as a 60% reduction in emissions by 2050.

Because instruments such as Kyoto will always be flawed, says Helm, "the argument should be less about instruments and more about institutions". In A Credible Carbon Policy ,just published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Helm and his co-authors Cameron Hepburn and Richard Mash argue that the best way to overcome the credibility problem (governments' almost irresistible urge to wriggle out of obligations to those without influence) is to set up a new institution: a global energy/carbon agency.

Just as the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) were created largely to cope with the oil shocks of the 1970s, the new international body would become an essential part of decision making by developed countries.

Barring a visitation by angels (perhaps in the form of a global agreement on contraction and convergence as modelled by the Global Commons Institute), such an agency looks like a good idea to Globolog. If - say - China, India, Brazil and Europe were to agree, could spring be far behind?


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