Kyoto Protocol Faces Crucial Test in Buenos Aires

12:30 PM EDT
Tuesday, October 20, 1998

Kyoto Protocol Faces Crucial Test in Buenos Aires

As the Fourth Conference of the Parties to the climate change treaty approaches in Buenos Aires next month, a decade of efforts to stabilize the climate is on the verge of collapse, Worldwatch Institute researchers announced in a special issue of WORLD WATCH Magazine. (Special Offer: the three articles are available free as PDF files for downloading prior to the conference.)

Since the historic Kyoto climate conference last year, negotiations on the details of the Protocol have bogged down in acrimonious debate over a host of complicated provisions. These divisions are widening rather than narrowing, raising the risk that the Protocol may not be ratified by a sufficient number of industrial nations to bring it into force-or else ratified so late as to make its emissions targets unattainable.

"The world cannot afford an indefinite stalemate," said Christopher Flavin, Senior Vice President at Worldwatch Institute and author of the issue's lead article. Flavin noted that six of the first eight months of 1998 set global temperature records, while 56 million Chinese were displaced by floods, and unprecedented wildfires burned forests from Borneo to the Amazon.

"Unless we make real progress in Buenos Aires, it may be time to open a new front in the war against climate change," Flavin said. "Conditions are ripe for a leadership group of national and city governments, as well as industries, to step forward with more ambitious plans to reduce emissions and accelerate the development of low-emission technologies such as fuel cells, solar energy, and wind power."

Divisions between the United States and many developing nations appear to have deepened since Kyoto, and the holes in the Protocol are beginning to seem more substantial than the agreement itself, according to the Worldwatch analysts. By creatively papering over wide differences among nations, the Kyoto negotiators may have crafted an agreement that is so complex, unwieldy, and uncertain that it may prove difficult to modify or implement. Among the sticking points that will face negotiators in Buenos Aires:

The Role of Developing Countries:

U.S. Senators say they will not ratify the Protocol without "scheduled commitments to limit or reduce emissions" by developing countries. According to an article by Worldwatch research associate Seth Dunn, most developing countries have per capita emissions less than one-tenth the U.S. level, and have resisted the notion that they should adopt early emission limits. Dunn suggests a more constructive North-South climate partnership, noting that if developing countries adopt practical policies to accelerate deployment of advanced new energy technologies-with financial assistance from industrial nations-we could overcome the current impasse. The Kyoto Protocol contains a potentially productive new institution-the Clean Development Mechanism-which is to be used to channel funds to low-carbon technologies as well as tree planting and climate adaptation in developing countries.

Carbon Sinks:

The Kyoto Protocol provides industrial countries the option to offset their greenhouse emissions by counting the carbon absorbed by their forests. But an article by Worldwatch biodiversity expert Ashley Mattoon points out that there is no scientific basis to make such an accounting today, and that the forestry provisions in the Protocol could result in activities that are harmful both to forests and to the climate. Carbon sinks threaten to become a giant loophole that undermines the commitments made in Kyoto. Sinks are likely to be dealt with only obliquely in Buenos Aires, since a scientific review of the proposal is now underway, but the U.S. is unlikely to ratify the Protocol until the sink provisions are fully fleshed out.

Emissions Trading:

Emissions trading represents a potentially effective means of ensuring that emission reduction investments are made where they are most cost-effective. This good concept was undermined by the unnecessarily generous emission allowances provided to Russia and Ukraine in the Protocol. These allowances are to be available for purchase by other countries, significantly weakening the emission goals in the Protocol, and undermining its legitimacy. The notion of the U.S. paying Russia tens of billions of dollars for "hot air" emission allowances generated by the nation's economic problems is opposed by everyone from Greenpeace to the National Coal Association.

One of the ironies of the year since Kyoto is that while national and international policy making have stagnated, opportunities for economically cutting emissions have blossomed. Motivated in part by the prospect of legally binding emission limits, companies, cities, and individuals have pursued a host of new initiatives. From these new initiatives, a less legalistic, more productive approach to the climate problem may emerge.

  • As national governments struggle over the Kyoto Protocol, many city governments are moving to reduce their emissions. Over 100 cities, representing 10 percent of global emissions, have joined the Cities for Climate Protection campaign to reduce emissions by investing in public transportation, tightening up public buildings, and planting trees. Saarbrucken, a medium-sized city in a coal-mining region of Germany, has already cut its emissions by 15%, in part via energy management and public education campaigns.
  • A year ago, Toyota shocked the auto world with the arrival in its showrooms of the world's first hybrid electric car, the Prius-with much lower emissions than conventional cars. Marketed as a "green" sedan, the Prius has sold so quickly in Japan this year that Toyota had to open a second production plant. The shock waves have been felt in Detroit, where General Motors President John Smith said this year, "No car company will be able to survive in the 21st century by relying on the internal-combustion engine alone."
  • British Petroleum President John Browne surprised the oil industry when he announced that after extended internal deliberations, his company has concluded that in response to the climate issue, it will reduce its carbon emissions 10%, and step up investment in solar energy. Enron Corp, North America's largest gas company, and Royal Dutch Shell, the world's biggest petroleum firm, have joined BP in acknowledging the severity of the climate problem and are beginning to shift their own investment strategies.

Taken together, these efforts suggest that it will be easier and less expensive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than it appeared a few years ago, according to the articles in WORLD WATCH Magazine. As with most other environmental problems, once we get serious about slowing climate change, we will likely find a host of innovative and inexpensive ways to do so.

Thanks in part to the signal sent by the climate convention, as well as to those coming from the climate itself, that process is gathering momentum. The question is how to speed it up.

"The challenge in Buenos Aires and the months beyond is to either renovate the Protocol's increasingly baroque structure-or try a new approach," Flavin argues. "The negotiators who labored so hard over the past decade to get the foundation of the Protocol in place deserve one more try in Buenos Aires. But if at the end of the day, there is no serious prospect of ratifying the Protocol and implementing it, new approaches may be needed."

"When other environmental treaties have run into similar problems, a leadership group of more committed governments has sometimes formed," Flavin's article notes. "They adopt a more stringent set of voluntary goals, which they then move immediately to implement. In the 1980s, European negotiations to reduce North Sea pollution and nitrogen oxide emissions each ran aground due to the vehement opposition of major governments. But other countries moved ahead-complementing more modest, legally binding agreements that were also agreed to."

A similar "Leadership Initiative" could be effective in the climate negotiations, starting with the several European and Latin American countries that played a constructive role last year in Kyoto, and building support outward from there. Taking the idea a step further, regional and city governments could be brought into such an agreement, along with constructively minded companies such as British Petroleum and Enron.

The governments and companies involved in this initiative would pledge to each other not just to meet certain goals, but also to adopt major policy changes and investments that will efficiently and expeditiously reduce emissions. The guiding principle of this Leadership Initiative would be to make climate stabilization an economic opportunity as well as an environmental necessity.

Like the Kyoto Protocol itself, a Leadership Initiative would still require political support-at local, regional, and national levels. Among the politically popular policy measures that could be included: shifting taxes from labor to energy, creating jobs in conserving energy and building wind farms, eliminating counterproductive fossil fuel subsidies, and investing in bicycle lanes and public transportation systems that rejuvenate urban life even as they reduce pollution.