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Kyoto and Den Haag: what is (not) happening?


Cartoon depicting the enormous influence that politics has on global warming policy.
In December 1997, member nations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change convened in Kyoto, Japan (a beautiful ancient city full of temples and other cultural treasures) to seek agreement on how to deal with the predicted climate problems from emission of greenhouse gases. The aim was to generate legally binding 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 were involved. Politics and economics play a key role in global warming policy discussions, and the two can often take precedence over sound science. Earlier this year the US administration made a decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. It was a decision that had less to do with science than with the perception of the economics. We’ll discuss this at the end of this section.

The political problems in the drafting of the Kyoto Protocol included:

The history and future projections for carbon emissions in billion metric tons from industrialized countries (such as USA, Canada, Western Europe), EE/FSU (Eastern European and former Soviet Union), and developing countries (such as India, China, Southern American countries). Although currently the industrialized countries are the biggest producers, note that the biggest increases in carbon emissions in the next 20 years are projected to come from developing countries. By 2020 countries such as India and China will be the biggest producers. (See the units glossary index for a definition of “Billion Metric Tons.”) From: EIA
  • The outcome of any proposed reduction of greenhouse gases is not clear on the scale of human life spans. In particular, it is not clear that the difference in outcome between action and inaction would be measurable. (Each nation asks the question, ”What good will my action do?”)
  • The economic costs of action (that is, reduction of emissions) are not clear, and the distribution of these costs among the participants, while certain to be unequal, will also be perceived differently. (One nation says to another, “Why should I pay a high price for this, while it's rather easy on you?”)
  • The inequities between the income of nations is such that the rich will be called upon to stop increasing emissions, while the poor will want to reserve the right to become as industrialized as the richer nations. (Developing southern countries feel that it’s unfair for northern industrialized countries to hold them to decrease emissions. The developing countries are saying instead, “You caused the problem, you fix it yourself.”)
  • 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.
  • The scientific uncertainties and the political complexities provide a rich opportunity for powerful special interests to muddy the waters, in order to prevent agreements. (With industry lobbyists claiming that, "As long as we don't understand precisely what is going on, let's not do anything that might hurt our profits.")
The Outcome of the Kyoto Protocol
The remarkable thing is that agreements were actually made in Kyoto, and brought together in a 16 page 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. Read more on the Kyoto Protocol at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website at: United Nations Framework convention on Climate Change

After the Kyoto Protocol
The details of how greenhouse gas emissions were to be reduced were not agreed upon at that 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 (like China and India) make some meaningful commitments to control future emissions. The USA also required there to be a suitable framework for emissions trading, whereby one nation can exchange reductions and emissions requirements. Most recently, the Bush administration has stepped out of the Kyoto protocol agreement all together, much to the dismay of the European and other international partners in the agreement.

Cartoon depicting the industrialized nations’ attitude toward the developing world’s role in the reduction of greenhouse gases. (From: Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, India.)
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 and details of the Kyoto Protocol. Remember that Kyoto Protocol agreements on reducing greenhouse emissions in developed countries (an average 5% reduction of emissions below their 1990 level) was reached before anyone established how those reductions could be made. The task of filling in the details of the Kyoto Protocol was obviously going to be tough. The conference turned out to be a failure. Reasons given for its failure vary, with some blaming the USA for wanting credit for their growing forests (which are “carbon sinks,” taking CO2 out of the atmosphere) in order to get an allowance for emissions over the Kyoto targets. Initially, U.S. negotiators proposed that almost 310 million tons of carbon (about half of the U.S. reduction target) be accounted for by the uptake of carbon by its forest and soils. European Union negotiators as well as observers from some environmental groups did not find this argument to be fair, countering that such generous use of carbon sinks amounted to "rewriting the Kyoto targets,” and would open the way for introducing all sorts of loopholes into the process. Some reasons for blame include the major industrial nations and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for a lack of political will in decreasing carbon-based energy use. Others blame Germany for intransigence in negotiating CO2 credits.

Scenario for USA to fulfill the conditions for greenhouse gas reduction agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol. Note the y-axis is in million tons of CO2 equivalent.
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. The European delegation, however, told the Bush administration that 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.


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