GLOBAL WARMING: Kyoto & Its Implications

Kyoto, Japan
In December 1997, member nations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convened in Kyoto, the famous temple city in Japan, once the seat of emperors and a favorite tourist attraction. Their goal was to seek agreement on how to deal with the implications of global warming and whether steps needed to be taken to do something about it - that is, whether it was necessary to reduce the release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a gas produced through the burning of wood, coal and hydrocarbons - the main energy sources for most people in the world. The aim was to generate serious commitments for industrialized countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and to leave some room for developing countries to increase their energy use (which they need to grow their economies) but with the provision that they too will face restrictions in the not-too-distant future. The delegates to the conference faced a number of problems and obstacles, because much more than scientific questions are involved.

Politics and economics play a key role in global warming policy discussions, and they routinely take precedence over scientific arguments.

The political problems in the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol included:
  1. The outcome of any proposed reduction of greenhouse gases is not clear on the scale of human expectations. In particular, it is not clear that the difference in outcome between action and inaction would be measurable on the scale of decades.
  2. The economic costs of action (that is, reduction of emissions) are not clear, but are commonly estimated as large. The distribution of these costs among the participants, while certain to be unequal, will also be perceived differently, with the less developed nations insisting on their limited ability to bear such costs.
  3. The inequities between the incomes of nations are enormous. The rich nations will be called upon to decrease emissions (to make up for past emissions), while the poor nations will want to reserve the right to expand their economies and raise the standard of living of their people.
  4. The continued population growth especially in the poorer nations, and the desire for increased living standards, will generate enormous pressures for them to industrialize and increase emissions.
  5. The scientific uncertainties and the political complexities involved provide a rich opportunity for powerful special interests to muddy the waters in order to hinder agreement. Favorite strategies are to question the reality of man-made global warming; to stress the benefits of warming for agriculture; and to question the computer models (and motives) of climate researchers who explore the consequences of global warming.

Figure illustrating the differences in time span between global warming, whose impact will reach far into the future, versus the kinds of timescales with which most economists and politicians concern themselves. (Note: this is a logarithmic scale.)
Agreements were finally made and brought together in a document now known as the Kyoto Protocol. After protracted negotiations, countries involved agreed to work toward a modest reduction in the levels of greenhouse gases they emit. The overall targets adopted for greenhouse gas emissions by 2008-12 are an 8% cut from 1990 levels for the European Union (EU), 7% for the USA, and 6% for Japan and Canada. Australia is allowed an 8% increase, while Russia has a target of 0% (i.e. 1990 levels). Compared with the opening positions of 15% for the EU, 5% for Japan, and 0% for the USA, this seems like a tidy compromise. You can read more on the Kyoto Protocol at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website at:

The details of how greenhouse gas emissions were to be reduced were not agreed upon at the Kyoto meeting. In fact, they have been argued about for the past several years. Under the Clinton administration, USA made it clear that it will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless key developing countries (especially China and India) make some meaningful commitments to control future emissions. The USA insists on a suitable framework for emissions trading, whereby reductions in one nation can be credited to another.

In November 2000 the delegates met again for another United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convened in The Hague (Den Haag, Netherlands) with the purpose of making key decisions on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. However, the conference turned out to be a failure owing to the political and economic problems listed, as well as technical questions (e.g, what precisely counts as a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions).

Emission expected for average C burning (blue) and emissions actually reported (orange) for the 20 top emitters. Orange bar exceeds length of blue bar: high per capita emission (e.g., USA). Blue bar > orange bar: low per capita emission (e.g., Bangladesh).
In April 2001, President Bush decided to pull the U.S. out of the Kyoto agreement completely. Citing the weakening economy and energy shortages, Mr. Bush said more research was needed, and that he would produce an alternative to the pact. Apparently, the European Union still plans to ratify the accord, and will discuss with Canada, Russia, Iran, China and Japan on how to proceed with global climate talks, with or without the U.S.

The alternatives contemplated by the U.S. center on voluntary action and market mechanisms.

Emissions per capita, ranked according to size. Upon re-allocation to reduce the spread of emissions per capita, nations listed on top of the graph would lose, while nations listed on the bottom of the graph would gain. Also, the 7 top nations have abundant fossil fuels in the ground. The value of these assets would decrease if carbon use were restricted by international agreement. The expectation is (independent of scientific discussions) that the nations listed on top should be unenthusiastic about the concept of regulating emissions while the ones listed at the bottom should be in favor of re-allocation on the basis of some standard per capita use.