Keeping Kyoto on life support

Why world leaders bend their knee to the Protocol even as they fail to meet its demands.

The Montreal conference on climate change ended in agreement - much to everybody’s surprise.

The nature of the agreement has been heavily spun. UK environment secretary Margaret Beckett described it as ‘a diplomatic triumph’. In truth, all that was agreed was that there would be more talks in the future with no deadlines, no targets and no obligations. The real reason for the triumphalism is that the Americans didn’t walk out altogether. The Kyoto process is not dead, but it may be in a permanent vegetative state.

One of the many strange things about the Kyoto protocol is that its biggest defenders are also its biggest breachers. The treaty demands that global emissions of six greenhouse gases fall by 5.2 per cent compared with 1990 levels over the period from 2008-2012. Yet its biggest supporters are failing miserably in this effort. Emissions for the EU are supposed to fall by eight per cent but the 15 longest-standing members of the Union will manage cuts of only 2.5 per cent by 2012. Canada, supposed to achieve a six per cent decrease in that period, is currently producing 24 per cent more emissions than in 1990.

That world leaders will still pay lip service to Kyoto, even as they fail to live up to its demands, demonstrate the extent to which environmentalism has become about moral posturing more than practical measures.

The failure of some nations to fulfil Kyoto hasn’t stopped them from lecturing the US on its failure to sign up. Canadian prime minister Paul Martin said in his speech to open the talks at Montreal: ‘The time is past to pretend that any nation can stand alone, isolated from the global community, for there is but one Earth and we share it, and there can be no hiding on any island, in any city, within any country, no matter how prosperous, from the consequences of inaction.’ (Martin raps US over Kyoto accord, Globe and Mail, 8 December 2005)

Despite the rhetoric, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the terms of the Kyoto protocol won’t be met because they are unacceptably expensive, particularly in economies that are already floundering. Even then, Kyoto is pointless for two reasons: firstly, the emissions cuts are by common consensus too small to have any noticeable effect on climate change, even if the USA were involved; secondly, because Kyoto excludes fast-developing countries like China. China’s rapid development of coal-fired power stations would wipe out the Kyoto cuts in months.

So, why all the fuss about the Montreal agreement? From the point of view of the environmental lobby that has been pushing for a souped-up ‘Son of Kyoto’ with even bigger emissions cuts, it means they are still in the game. As long as politicians still talk about climate change as a major problem, they have the potential to wield influence.

To that end, the new Tory leader’s decision to set up a ‘Quality of Life’ commission under the leadership of former environment minister John Gummer (and including eco-luminaries such as Zac Goldsmith) illustrates that politicians still think there’s something useful to be achieved by pushing an environmentalist agenda.

However, the goals seem to be more political and moral than practical. Environmental awareness is about learning the lesson that the planet has been screwed up by human beings. In an era where economic and social progress has slowed to a crawl, the notion that reining in growth is actually a positive thing, not a failure, is very attractive to a political class in search of a mission.

It is attractive at a diplomatic level, too. For the EU in particular, setting itself up as the polar opposite of the USA on just about every issue is important as a means of creating a sense of unity and purpose. In this particular fable, America is the bogeyman, not just on Iraq, but also on its insistence in striving for increased wealth at the expense of the planet. The irony is that the US record on emissions is, if anything, better than Europe’s despite refusing to ratify Kyoto.

This moral message might suit the leaders of Europe and Canada, but its effect is ultimately destructive. It calls into question the ability of humanity to do anything useful to make society in the future better than it is now, and it acts a huge diversion from dealing with much more pressing problems.

The Montreal agreement kept Kyoto on life-support but, if we are to focus the energies of society effectively, it would be better if someone pulled the plug.

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