Environmental groups need to accept it is a dangerous con trick
Mark Lynas Friday July 27, 2001 The Guardian newspaper,
As the chairman's gavel banged down on the table at the climate change negotiations in Bonn last Monday, cheers erupted around the hall. Some of the loudest cries came from the green groups, many of whom had waited 10 years for this moment. "We did it!" delegates said to each other, shaking hands and grinning in disbelief. "We rescued the Kyoto protocol," beamed EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom. "Now we can go home and look our children in the eye." It was an emotional moment. Which makes it even more difficult to take a step back and admit that we were fooled.
Two days ago no one, the world's media included, wanted to poop the party by asking awkward questions. But the unpalatable fact is that the Kyoto protocol is now more riddled with holes than a piece of Swiss cheese. Not only will the so-called climate change treaty not do anything to cut greenhouse gas emission levels, it will allow them to climb above business-as-usual projections.
It's as if the Kyoto protocol never happened. And what's almost worse is that the green groups who originally pushed so hard for a meaningful treaty have been left defending an agreement which isn't worth the paper it is written on.
The Kyoto deal, struck in 1997, gave industrialised countries a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions (principally carbon dioxide) by 5% below 1990 levels by 2008-12. But it didn't say how. Since 1997, participating countries have been attending annual meetings to decide on the rules for implementing Kyoto.
One group of countries, led by the US and including Japan, Australia and Canada, have worked diligently for years to weaken the targets by various underhand means. These come under the general heading "flexible mechanisms", and were pushed through on the grounds that they would help ease the pain of carbon cuts in gas-guzzling countries.
One mechanism allowed industrialised countries to trade emissions between themselves, so that those meeting the targets could sell carbon credits to those falling behind. Russia's economic collapse has reduced its industrial greenhouse gas emissions, leaving it with a vast number of "carbon credits" to sell on the world market. Then there are the notorious "sinks", which allow countries to count carbon absorbed in forests and agricultural land towards their targets in the same way as reducing the amount of carbon coming out of a factory chimney or a car exhaust.
Add together all the sinks provisions and it turns out that the original Kyoto targets for industrialised countries no longer become a cut at all, but rise to about 0.3%. And now that the US has decided to pull out of Kyoto, there will be far more carbon credits available to buy. The effect is increased because countries can then sell their sink credits on the emissions markets.
Without the US ratifying, emissions from all the industrialised countries (including the US) could rise by between 9.4% and 11.6% above 1990 levels by 2008-12. That's even higher than business as usual, predictions for which vary from 6.8% to 10.2%. The decisive factor is that, without the US, all Russia's carbon credits can be bought up by other major polluters.
It's great news for the likes of Bush and Exxon - they've managed to kill off Kyoto without even being involved. The Bush administration was right in saying "the Emperor of Kyoto has no clothes", but what they didn't mention was that it was their own efforts (and those of the Clinton administration) which stripped him naked.
This sorry tale also raises the question of why mainstream environmental groups are now supporting an agreement which could be substantially worse than the one they dismissed as "junk". The rather lame justification provided by Greenpeace is that although inadequate, it provides the "essential ladder needed to build global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions".
Who are they trying to kid? Try thinking of a single international agreement which countries have made more strenuous efforts than were strictly necessary to implement. Simply hoping that governments won't exploit loopholes is stupid. Greenpeace may be right that Monday's agreement in Bonn provides a framework to build on, but unless Kyoto is given some real teeth at the next international meeting in November, they and other green groups should denounce it as the dangerous con trick it has become.
The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion is that we need to make cuts of 60% or more in carbon dioxide emissions. There's a real danger that as the polar ice caps continue to melt and ocean temperatures to rise, global warming may spiral out of control. And 10 years down the line, when we suddenly wake up and realise that Kyoto was a farce, it may already be too late.
Mark Lynas is writing a book on the human impact of climate change email@example.com