Global War on Global Warming Heats Up


As Kyoto Protocol nears entry into force, first ten-year review
of global climate policy reveals limitations of strictly voluntary approach

Washington, DC - Thursday, August 1, 2002 — The world is on the brink of bringing into force one of the most far-reaching environmental treaties of all time, the Kyoto Protocol. And even without the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the United States, on board, signatories of the Protocol are setting the stage for a new generation of policymaking worldwide, reports a new study—the first ten-year review of global climate policy since the Rio Earth Summit—by the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization.

“The next critical step in controlling global warming is to bring the Protocol, and its legally-binding emissions limits, into force as soon as possible and leave the era of voluntary commitments behind,” says Seth Dunn, author of Reading the Weathervane: Climate Policy from Rio to Johannesburg. “The first President Bush argued for soft, voluntary commitments in 1992. It was a questionable claim back then, and one that—with a decade of hindsight—we can discard. For the current President Bush to continue recycling his father’s failed policy betrays either ‘policy amnesia’ or willful neglect of the record of the past decade.”

Momentum for bringing the Kyoto Protocol into force has been building, following the ratifications by the European Union and Japan earlier this summer. With ratification by either Russia and Poland, or Russia and Canada, the conditions for bringing the treaty into force would be satisfied. Climate change will loom in the background at the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August/September and will be front and center at the next round of negotiations, which will take place in New Delhi from October 23 to November 1.

In this review of global climate change policy since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Dunn reviews global and national carbon emission trends between 1990 and 2001, and details the climate policies developed over the past decade in 11 industrial and developing nations and the European Union. Among the findings:

  • The European Union, the climate policy pioneer, saw emissions drop by 0.2 percent between 1990 and 2001. But E.U. emissions rose in 2000 and 2001, auguring future rises if new and stronger policies are not adopted. Emissions in Germany and the United Kingdom fell by 17.1 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively, due to the shutdown of inefficient industries and a switch from coal to natural gas for electricity.
  • Japan saw emissions balloon by 10.8 percent between 1990 and 2001, though it still boasts the world’s best ratio of carbon emissions per unit of economic output.
  • The United States, Australia, and Canada saw emissions explode by 15.7, 32.3, and 11.5 percent, respectively, between 1990 and 2001.
  • Russia, the most carbon-intensive country, experienced a 30.5 percent drop in emissions between 1990 and 2001, largely due to its economic collapse during the 1990s.

Climate change rose to the top of the global agenda at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, where the original U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted. Under this agreement, industrial and former Eastern bloc nations agreed to aim to voluntarily return their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. However, nearly all the countries fell short of their initial Rio goals. Globally, carbon emissions grew by 10.2 percent between 1990 and 2001. Meanwhile, the scientific case for action continued to strengthen, due to further observed evidence of climate change and a string of new highs in global carbon dioxide concentrations and global average surface temperatures.

“The records in global CO2 concentrations and global temperatures, and the upward trends in global and most national emissions, indicate that the gap between climate science and policy has widened, rather than narrowed, since Rio,” says Dunn, who identified several key shortcomings in the policy responses to date:

  • Most of the climate policies that were adopted have been too weak, only partially implemented, or discontinued.
  • Governments have failed to develop “diversified portfolios” of policies, with many relying on one type of measure—such as weak voluntary agreements.
  • While “good practices” were identified in areas such as tax policy and energy efficiency standards, the existence of “perverse practices”—including subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption (estimated globally at $200 billion per year)—has been a major impediment to climate policymaking, particularly in the United States, Canada, and Australia.

The transport sector emerges as a major blind spot in climate policy since Rio, receiving very little attention while becoming the fastest-growing source of emissions. Transportation, especially road transport, is projected to remain the fastest-growing source of emissions through 2020, with the most explosive growth occurring in the developing world. But governments have been loathe to touch the massive direct and indirect subsidies for road building, suburban development, and car travel that have fueled the surge in transport emissions.

Dunn defuses several common myths in the climate policy debate, such as the claim that Brazil, India, and China are “rogue emitters.” “We found these nations taking numerous steps to slow emissions growth, primarily for economic reasons,” says Dunn. “For example, the U.S. government projects that China will surpass the United States as the world’s biggest carbon emitter by 2020. But recent trends suggest that the gap between the two countries’ emissions may instead widen, as Chinese emissions rise less rapidly than projected, due to significant reductions in coal use and widespread energy efficiency improvements.”

Dunn also challenges the claim, often made by opponents of the Kyoto Protocol, that the costs of implementing the treaty will outweigh the benefits. The Protocol would require industrial and Former Eastern bloc nations to collectively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent between 1990 and 2008-12. But there is significant uncertainty about the economic consequences of meeting this commitment, as conventional economic models have historically overstated the costs and understated the benefits of environmental policies.

“Keep in mind that the economists who predict that the Protocol will be too expensive are the same nay-sayers who predicted that no agreement would be reached in Kyoto,” Dunn points out. “The real-world evidence to date, and new studies showing significant potential for low- or no-cost emissions cuts, suggest that they will be proven wrong once again.”

Worldwatch Paper 160 - Reading the Weathervane: Climate Policy from Rio to Johannesburg