Kyoto Protocol Becomes Reality

hammer1.gif (1140 bytes) People’s Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of
India (Marxist)


No. 31

August 05, 2001

Kyoto Protocol
Becomes Reality

— Despite Rogue


REGULAR readers
of these columns will probably wonder why another article on the much-debated Kyoto
Protocol is appearing in People’s Democracy so soon after the previous one on the
“toxic Texan” US President George W Bush’s announcement of his
administration’s decision to renege on the USA’s earlier broad endorsement of,
and signing on to, the Kyoto Protocol which seeks to lay down international measures to
control emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and thus minimise the dangerous climate
change effects of the resultant global warming. This quick follow-up piece is prompted by
the fact that the past two weeks have seen quite momentous developments which, if they
become portents of similar trends in the future, would indeed signal important changes in
the global order.


Agreement at
last On July 21-22 in Bonn, Germany, official delegates from 186 countries meeting under
UN auspices — with numerous other NGOs, interest groups and lobbies articulating their
own positions on the sidelines — after 10 days of intense discussions and many sleepless
nights, finally brought down the curtain on over 10 years of hard-fought often acrimonious
debate, and successfully drew up and agreed upon an international Protocol on Climate
Change. Reaching agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, so named since it was in this Japanese
city that the draft agreement was drawn up based on the 1992 discussions at the
environmental summit at Rio de Janeiro, has been one of the most arduous series of
international negotiations ever recorded. The Protocol is slated to become an
international Treaty, with obligatory actions on the part of all signatory countries along
with sanctions for default, as soon as 55 countries sign the agreement and as many
industrialised countries as would account for 55 per cent of GHG emissions ratify it.

A difficult target to reach, and with many hurdles on the way as we shall discuss, but
most commentators including many cynics admit that a significant beginning has been made.

Of equally
great, some would say greater, significance is the fact that this agreement has been
reached without the participation of, and despite trenchant opposition by, the US which,
of course, provides much of the muscle for international enforcement. Imagine, an
international agreement being agreed upon and soon poised to become international law
without the US and in spite of defiance of the sole superpower! The resolve and persistent
efforts of the 185 countries in Bonn, including several of the US’ closest allies
speaking on its behalf and with whom many serious even grave compromises had to be made,
to come to an agreement spoke volumes for their determination not to be cowed down by
aggressive US blackmail and not be deterred by the US’ ugly position of “no
Treaty with me, no Treaty without me.”

George W Bush
had termed the Kyoto Protocol “fatally flawed”. Many agree that without the US,
which contributes a massive 25 per cent of worldwide GHGs, the Protocol would indeed be
severely handicapped and even that, in the attempt to come to a consensus which might be
acceptable to the US, the global targets have been so far lowered as to dilute them to
unacceptable levels. But the fact remains that a major international effort on an issue
which the world community feels seriously about has now formally been initiated, without
the US, severely embarrassing it and isolating the present US administration from
international opinion and even from domestic opinion within the US. The entire process has
also demonstrated the power of popular pressure brought on governments with great
persistence and consistency by informed and organised public opinion including the
scientific community and there can be little doubt that governmental delegates at Bonn
felt they could ignore this popular sentiment only at their own peril. Oivier Deleuze,
Belgium’s energetic energy minister, summed it up: “We could not go home
with another failure. We would have made ourselves ridiculous.”
George W Bush
had better watch out!


Let us first
look at what has been agreed upon at Bonn.

Highlights of
the agreements at Bonn are as follows:

186 countries
agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, including 38 industrialised countries which agreed to
binding targets to reduce their GHG emissions the Protocol is expected to come into force
as early as 2002, as soon as 55 countries have passed it into national law and countries
with a total of 55 per cent of the emissions from industrialised nations have ratified it,
countries will have to submit their plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and update
progress to give early warning if they are failing to reach targets if countries fail to
reach the first set of targets by 2012 they will have to add the shortfall to the next
commitment period plus a 30 per cent penalty, will also be excluded from carbon trading
and be forced to take corrective measures domestically 500 million dollars (Rs 2350 crore)
will be provided by industrialised countries to assist developing countries adapt to
climate change (caused by the past and future actions of the industrialised countries) and
to provide new clean technologies industrialised countries will be able to plant forests,
manage existing ones and change farming practices, and claim “credits” for
removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, such “credits” becoming available
to offset a portion of GHG emissions international trade in carbon will be started whereby
companies or other entities saving carbon by building clean technologies in other states
will be able to claim “credits” which can be “sold” as tonnes of
carbon saved on international commodity markets.


Scientists say
that what has been agreed in Bonn is nowhere near what is required to reverse the current
pace of global warming, but it is a start and a good one at that. In the
pre-industrial period it is estimated that the atmosphere contained between 200 and 275
parts per million by volume (ppmv) of carbon dioxide, the predominant GHG. Today it has
reached 370 ppmv, a level which scientists say has not been seen on this planet for over
20 million years. If no steps are taken, and industrial development and population
growth continue at present rates, carbon dioxide levels are expected to reach 700 ppmv by
2100 resulting in increase of average temperatures by up to 6 degrees Celsius with
devastating consequences for all life on earth.

There is great
scientific consensus today about the threat to life on the planet from global warming. The
objections by some corporate or conservative scientists, mostly quoted by the US
administration despite mounting evidence and scientific opinion within the US itself, that
natural fluctuations in climate from sunspots or variations in the earth’s orbit
could explain the 0.6 degree warming in the 20th century or that there are too
many uncertainties in computer modeling to predict temperatures in a century’s time
look increasingly hollow. A recent editorial in the prestigious and staid scientific
journal “Nature” — as one commentator put it, hardly a hotbed of environmental
radicalism — compared those who dismiss the threat of global warming to those who
maintained that smoking does not cause cancer. The menace is real indeed but how far the
measures agreed in Bonn will go towards solving the problem is open to some dispute.

The measures
under negotiation since Rio seek to stabilise the amount of carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere at about 450 ppmv, still too high fear many scientists but nevertheless a good
target which can realistically be achieved. However, without further severe cuts in carbon
dioxide emissions, stabilising the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be
difficult. Further, there is a substantial time lag in the world’s climate and, as
such, even if GHG emissions were totally stopped tomorrow, the earth’s climate would
get warmer and sea levels would rise for roughly another one hundred years before they
start falling back. The problem is that by merely cutting emissions slightly, to 1990
levels, the Bonn accord leaves huge quantities of carbon dioxide pouring into the
atmosphere where it will linger for over a century in the absence of other measures to
take it out.

By some
estimates, the original Kyoto target of an average 5 per cent cut in 1990-level emissions
by the 30 most industrialised countries by 2012 has effectively been reduced to just under
2 per cent. A major reason is the concession extracted by close US allies Australia
and Canada to count forests and farmlands as “carbon sinks” thereby further
reducing their requirement to curb actual emissions. Another reason is a compromise
whereby Russia, for example, will be able to trade more supposed “carbon
credits” with countries that undershoot their targets. Japan , another key US ally
used crude blackmail to remove financial penalties from the agreement leaving the issue of
enforcement somewhat in the air. Even “good boys” Britain and Germany, who added
weight to the EU’s determined push at Bonn and who currently exceed their emission
cut targets, managed to extract concessions on their own “dirty” fossil fuels
such as coal.

The severest
critics of the Bonn accords have estimate that, as a result, global warming may be reduced
by as little as one tenth of a degree over the next hundred years. Most scientists
disagree with such a pessimistic view but agree that the Bonn agreements are only a
beginning. John Mitchell, head of climate change modeling at the highly regarded UK Met
Office said:

“Trying to
reduce [GHG] emission levels is a bit like your mortgage. The sooner you start paying it
off the better,” he said. “Some people have criticised Kyoto, saying we
won’t notice any difference, but it takes time to change things, because there are
time lags not only in the climate system but in business and society.


The isolation of
the USA in Bonn has been sharp and total, and has climaxed several months of extraordinary
policy-making by the new George W Bush administration. Even conservative Bush supporters
and those who at least oppose all radical or even liberal views have been aghast at the
extreme positions taken recently by the Bush administration signaling a dramatically
isolationist turn to US foreign policy and certainly utter disregard for international
obligations and multilateral agreements. One swallow does not make a summer, so the saying
goes, but in the case of current US policy, it has not been one bird but a veritable

The US under
president George W Bush has declared it would not ratify the Comprehensive (nuclear) Test
Ban Treaty or CTBT, is calling for scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty,
has threatened to go it alone in developing missile defences, went back on the Kyoto deal
it had earlier agreed to in 1997 and has recently declared its opposition to global
negotiations towards a Convention to Ban Biological Weapons.

In the climate
change negotiations since Rio, the US has all along been the main obstacle with
three main objections to the Kyoto Protocol: the exemption it offers developing countries;
the burden it puts on the US as the world’s biggest offender to curb emissions, and
the supposed lack of consideration given to new technologies and market-based ways of
tackling global warming. Even after the Clinton administration came on board in 1997,
years of inconclusive meetings followed, striving to reach a consensus which, the closer
it appeared, got further away. Last November in the Hague the negotiations collapsed
dramatically with a walk-out by the British deputy PM, John Prescott, who thought he had
brokered a deal with the US only to find it unacceptable to others. When newly-elected
president George W Bush openly repudiated the treaty, it seemed the final nail in the
coffin, but it appears that the 186 nations that came to Bonn were inspired to make the
extra effort. A determination to defy the US was also discernible.

Part of the
reason for the success of the talks in Bonn was the absence of the US from the negotiating
table flowing from its rejectionist stance. In earlier negotiations the US had been seen
as blocking progress and as fighting a rearguard action, line by line through the
agreement. This time in Bonn, the EU with a large presence of Social Democratic
governments with Green coalition partners and ministers made its presence forcefully felt
and pushed hard for a closure. Another important factor in the US isolation was the role
of Iran as head of the G-77 group of developing countries with China and India as key
allies. Correspondents covering the Bonn meeting reported that it was clear that many of
the smaller nations did not want to let the opportunity pass of giving Mr Bush a
diplomatic bloody nose.

Delegates hissed
and booed at the US delegation when they entered the Plenary chamber while tired but
elated delegates were hugging each other. So embarrassing and complete was the US
isolation at Bonn that US energy secretary Spencer Abraham offered no comment at all and
his staff referred all questions on the Bonn agreement to the State Department. Ms
Condoleza Rice, US National Security Advisor and trouble-shooter in Europe was hard
pressed to defend the US position and could only promise to “stay on board”
whatever that meant given the US rejection of the Protocols and recent US energy policy
which will result in an estimated 35 per cent increase in emissions of GHGs and, according
to one commentator, “reads like a recipe for heating up the planet.” While most
European countries appear to have been driven towards environmental friendly positions by
enormous popular pressure, it appears clear that the self-proclaimed champion of democracy
is influenced more by the pressure of its oil and other energy lobbies, known to have been
leading supporters and financiers of George W Bush’s campaign for the US presidency.

Domestically, in
the US, the Democrat opposition moved fast to capitalise on the Bush administration’s
isolation, pushing through a measure in the US Senate which restores 4.5 billion dollars
(Rs 20,250 crore) in funds for programmes addressing climate change which the White House
had attempted to cut. The Bill drew significant Republican support and clearly reflected
worries of elected representatives about their constituents’ opinions. One Democratic
Senator said that this vote “underscores that the Bush administration’s initial
approach of ignoring climate change altogether is beyond imperfect — it’s

Indeed, it would
be foolhardy for anyone to believe that the road ahead will be easy without the US on
board both because of its own enormous emissions which need to be reduced and because of
its huge clout internationally. Yet, the determination of the world community to forge
ahead in the face of US opposition is indeed heartening and may well signal further such
actions in the years to come. As one observer at Bonn put it, the agreement reached
there is a geopolitical earthquake. President Bush wants a missile defense shield against
possible attacks by “rogue states”. But, as one environmentalist group put it,
the world community is more keen on building a shield against global warming. And the US
is clearly emerging as the world’s leading rogue state.

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