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Global Warming: Is Kyoto Accord The Answer?

Global Warming: Is Kyoto Accord The Answer?

By Norm Dixon
Green Left Weekly

Thousands of delegates from almost 200 governments around the world converged on Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, on December 6-17 for the latest in the seemingly interminable rounds of talks aimed at implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that aims to reduce emissions of the gases largely responsible for human-induced global warming.

The treaty, which has been stalled for seven years, will finally come into legal effect on February 16 following the decision by the Russian government to ratify it.

The treaty’s main significance lies in the fact that it recognises that legally binding international action to tackle global warming is required, by reducing the release of “greenhouse gases” into the atmosphere. There is now no doubt that such action is urgently needed, and is becoming more necessary by the day.

The concentration of greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as emissions of methane, nitrous oxides, water vapour and other gases — in the atmosphere is rapidly rising. These gases trap heat and cause global warming.

In 2001, the 2500 scientists from around 100 countries who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that unless greenhouse gas levels are stabilised Earth's average surface temperature will rise by up to 5.8°C by the end of the century. According to the IPCC figures, if unchecked, CO2 levels in the air will be between 650 and 970 parts per million (ppm). To stabilise CO2 at 450 ppm (twice the pre-Industrial Revolution level), which would limit global warming to about 2°C, total global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by 60-80% of today’s emissions within 50 years at the latest.

The IPCC forecasts, on the assumption that the Antarctic and Arctic ice caps will remain constant, a sea level rise of between 20 centimetres and almost 1 metre by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced. There will more severe and widespread flooding, more extreme storms and more droughts. The poorest countries would be hit hardest and be least able to adapt.


The news that Russia had decided to sign on to Kyoto has raised hopes among the world’s people that governments are now finally going to unite to take meaningful action to prevent this global environmental catastrophe. For many people, the belligerent long-term refusal of the US and Australian governments to sign the treaty has meant that the demand “Sign Kyoto” has been misunderstood to mean the same thing as “Stop global warming”.

Governments, and opposition capitalist parties like the Australian Labor Party and the US Democrats, have been happy to go along with this confusion.

So, is the Kyoto treaty really the answer to the looming crisis? Unfortunately, not only are the treaty’s formal greenhouse gas emission reduction targets minuscule compared to what is required, the corporate-friendly, market-based mechanisms contained in the treaty to achieve these cuts are counterproductive.

Under the treaty, the industrialised countries (referred to in the treaty as Annex One countries), which have historically been and remain the major emitters of CO2, are required to cut their greenhouse gas emissions on average to just 5.2% below their 1990 levels. They have until 2012 to achieve this modest task. However, despite the need to achieve a 60-80% reduction in emissions by 2050, no further reduction targets or timetables are yet established for beyond 2012.

The treaty’s “flexible mechanisms” provide plenty of scope for rich-country governments to engage in “creative accounting”. These devices allow governments to claim reductions in their country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions even though no actual reductions may have taken place. It is even possible that a country could increase its greenhouse gas emissions and still be credited with a reduction.

Annex One countries that have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions below that required under their own Kyoto targets are allowed to sell their remaining “right to pollute” credits to countries that cannot or don’t want to keep their Kyoto promises. While this might make some sense if the countries selling credits had genuinely reduced emissions, it should be remembered that the Kyoto baseline of 1990 conveniently ignores the fact that after 1990-91, the economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (including East Germany) collapsed, resulting in a 40% reduction in emissions from those countries. Russia and Ukraine will soon be able to sell other industrialised countries the right to increase their greenhouse gas emissions by that amount.

Individual corporations will also be allowed to buy and sell the right to pollute when European carbon markets begin official operations in January.

‘Carbon colonialism’

The treaty's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) will allow Annex One governments and corporations to earn emission credits for investing in projects that claim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in underdeveloped countries. For example, a CDM project might allow the New Zealand government to finance a factory producing energy-efficient appliances in India, but not do it in NZ; or BHP Billiton might construct wind generators in Mozambique but continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere from its operations in Australia and South Africa.

Another favourite will be for the rich countries to plant fast-growing, environmentally suspect tree plantations in poor countries and then count the CO2 absorbed towards their emissions “reductions”.

A further likely result of the CDM will be that rich country governments and corporations will dump obsolete technology on the poor countries as the First World introduces new energy-generation plant and equipment. Because this out-of-date technology may be “cleaner” than existing Third World factories and power plants, the First World will be awarded greenhouse credits, while the Third World will be stuck with obsolete (and uncompetitive) infrastructure considered too dirty to use in the rich countries.

As Belen Balanya, Ann Doherty, Olivier Hoedeman, Adam Ma'anit and Erik Wesselius, from the Corporate Europe Observatory campaign group, note: “These policies would effectively turn greenhouse gases into commodities, locking-in existing North-South inequities in the use of natural resources and opening-up many new and harmful profit-making opportunities for transnational corporations — essentially creating a new market out of thin air. Through these schemes, corporations and Northern governments will be entitled to buy countless cheap emission credits from the South, through projects of an often exploitative nature, thereby imposing on the South what the India-based Centre for Science and Environment refers to as ‘carbon colonialism'.

“Furthermore, all of the ‘low-hanging fruit’, or cheap credits, will have been harvested by the North when it comes time for Southern countries to reduce their own emissions, saddling them with only the most expensive options for any future reduction commitments they might make.” (

Another accounting scam is the provision that allows Annex One countries to avoid making genuine industrial emissions cuts is that they are allowed to count CO2 absorbed by domestic “carbon sinks” — from reduced land clearing, increased natural forest cover, new tree planting and soil conservation methods — towards reduction targets. However, ways to accurately quantify and verify exactly how much CO2 is removed from the atmosphere through these mechanisms are extremely unreliable.

The sad irony is that these measures were included in Kyoto largely at the insistence of the US and Australian governments as the price for their participation in the treaty's negotiation, but then both governments refused to sign the protocol after delaying its final emergence for almost a decade.

The refusal of the US, by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, to sign Kyoto leaves a gaping hole in the treaty’s coverage.

According to the New Scientist website (, the treaty's range of loopholes and scams will mean that even if the industrialised countries achieve Kyoto’s 5.2% reduction on paper, the real-world reduction will be more likely to be 1.5%.

Emissions still increasing

It is unlikely that most Annex One countries will genuinely meet their meagre Kyoto commitments without making extensive use of these accounting tricks. As Joke Waller-Hunter, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, conceded in his December 6 opening speech to the Buenos Aires meeting, since 1990 annual greenhouse gas emissions from the “highly industrialised countries” have increased by “more than 7%”.

The European Environment Agency reported in May 2003 that emissions of greenhouse gases from the European Union had increased in 2000 and 2001. Under Kyoto, the EU must reduce emissions by 8%. However, total EU CO2 emissions jumped 1.6% in 2001, while total greenhouse gas emissions increased 1%.

“The latest figures show that 10 of the [original EU] member states are heading towards overshooting their agreed share by a wide margin — Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain”, the EEA reported. France was also likely to fail to meet its target by “a very narrow margin”. Only Sweden, Germany and Britain were on track, the EEA said.

Japan, which pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels, had increased emissions by 8% as of the end of 2003. Canada’s annual emissions are 17% higher than they were in 1990, far above its promised 6% reduction.

The United States, which prior to pulling out of the treaty process in 2001 had committed itself to a 7% reduction on 1990 levels, increased its greenhouse gas emissions by 0.7% in 2002, bringing the total increase since 1990 to 13%. US CO2 emissions increased 16.7% between 1990 and 2002, according to International Energy Agency figures released on December 7.

Meanwhile, the Australian government on December 6 showed just how easilyffective the greenhouse gas emissions books can be cooked. Environment minister Ian Campbell released the Australian Greenhouse Office’s report Tracking to the Kyoto Target 2004, in which it claimed that Australia remains on track to meet the promise it made in 1997, before it also abandoned Kyoto, to limit greenhouse gas emissions to 8% above 1990 levels. In fact, Australia’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions have continued to soar since 1990, with the report stating that they may be 23% above 1990 levels by 2020.

From Green Left Weekly, December 15, 2004.
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