Global warnings

It's the political significance of the Kyoto Protocol that should bother us, not its legal standing.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

Russia’s vacillation about ratification of the Kyoto Protocol leaves the future of the agreement up in the air (1). But does it matter? The importance of the Kyoto Protocol has always been its political and moral significance: the consensus that countries should tailor their development needs around strategies designed to reduce global warming.

Whichever way Russia decides to go on ratifying the agreement, this consensus will hold – with disturbing consequences, particularly for the developing world.

The Kyoto Protocol was signed by 172 countries in 1997. The aim of the agreement was to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from industrialised countries to five per cent below 1990 levels in the period between 2008 and 12. In order to come into force, the agreement needed to be ratified by at least 55 countries, which in total should account for at least 55 per cent of the world’s emissions.

To date, 120 countries have ratified the Protocol. But, largely because of the USA’s decision in March 2001 not to ratify the agreement, these countries produce just 42 per cent of global emissions. So Russia, with 17 per cent of emissions, has effectively been given a casting vote on whether the agreement should become legally binding. Russia was initially keen on Kyoto because its industrial collapse after 1990 gave the country spare emissions quota to sell to other, more emission-heavy states; however, the USA’s non-involvement has limited the market for these quotas, and Russia may now feel that it has more to gain from vacillation.

But with or without a binding agreement, the countries of the European Union and Japan are enthusiastic, even if only two EU countries (Britain and Sweden) are on course to hit their targets (2). And despite the use of Kyoto as a stick with which the worthy Europeans can beat the polluting USA, 29 US states have already introduced Kyoto-style policies, and the federal government is actively discussing the idea of emissions reduction through improving technology rather than legislation (3).

The significance of policies, however, lies in their political message, rather than their practical effect. The message, accepted across the board in the developed world, is that global warming will necessarily cause major social and environmental problems, that reducing warming should be an immediate global priority, and that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is the way to do this. Before the world gets into a panic about the non-ratification of Kyoto, this consensus should be questioned.

While it is generally accepted that global warming is happening, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about how much it is happening, and how unusual such warming is. As John Gillott has explained on spiked, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose models provides the official projections of climate change, seems to become more uncertain about the degree of future global warming as its models are refined, more scientists are involved, and it becomes more aware of the many influences at play, both physical and social.

The IPCC’s current projections run from an increase in temperature ranging from 1.4 degrees centigrade to 5.8 degrees centigrade over the next century. This is quite a range of possibility, which will involve clearly different consequences. As Gillott explains, ‘the sheer complexity of the physical interactions involved, and the near impossibility of predicting patterns of social and technological development (and hence the output of the all-important gases and particles)’ means that predicting the scale of global warming will continue to be highly difficult (see Global warming – where’s the consensus?, by John Gillott).

If the extent of global warming is uncertain, so are its causes. How much of any temperature change will be due to the manmade effect of pollution, in the form of carbon dioxide emissions, is extremely difficult to tell. There is some dispute about how much global warming is caused by carbon dioxide emissions rather than other, ‘natural’ causes, for example solar variation. (See Julian Hunt and Piers Corbyn: global warnings?, by Helene Guldberg). The IPPC report in 2001 discusses the role of cloud, but admits that it is still unclear whether cloud increases or reduces global temperature (4).

A further problem in making projections about the impact of industrial activity on global warming is that we do not know how much the world economy will grow or to what degree we will continue to rely on carbon-based fuels. The scientists involved have therefore been reserved about what they do and do not know. Yet the reservations placed on these scenarios are usually ignored when it comes to making policy.

Rather than assuming, for example, that the future in the developed world is likely to be one of hi-tech industry of which low emissions is a fortunate consequence, it tends to be assumed that everything will stay the same, except with a forced reduction in emissions slapped on. This indicates something of the low expectations of the global warming discussion.

Where low expectations really kick in, however, is in the widespread fears about the consequences of global warming for the social and natural environment. There has been discussion of devastating flooding in low-lying areas, drought, an increase in extreme weather events and the loss of particular habitats (5).

What is almost always overlooked in the discussion of climate change is the capacity of humans to adapt to change. Gradually increasing temperatures will allow plenty of time for such adaptation. For example, if sea levels are on the rise, flood defences can be built over a period of time. Crop varieties can be developed that are better suited to changed conditions – and in some parts of the world, production will increase as these areas benefit from higher temperatures.

Throughout history, natural habitats have changed, benefiting some species as others suffer. And people’s vulnerability in the face of ‘natural’ disasters – famine, earthquakes, drought, storms – has always depended far more on levels of development, and broader political and economic factors, than the disasters themselves.

So there remains a great deal of uncertainty about the extent, causes and consequences of global warming – which is related to the fact that the science is less precise, and society more flexible, than the worst-case scenarios often allow for. This raises some key questions about the Kyoto Protocol. If climate change is caused by human activity, will Kyoto help? We are not sure how much temperatures will change in the next century, and we cannot be certain what the most important factors in this process are. Therefore, how can we know whether drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions will have any effect?

Regardless of the impact on global warming, what will be the impact of the focus on emissions reduction for development generally? For the developed world, it may be possible to adopt a strategy that is high in technology and low in greenhouse gas emissions, without forcibly curtailing energy use and development possibilities. In this sense, such a strategy might be welcome.

However, the existing problems with energy supply in the USA and Europe, and European governments’ preoccupation with low-tech solutions and the imperative of energy conservation, do not bode well for an ambitious, future-oriented perspective. The political clout of Kyoto, whether ratified or not, may yet cause more problems than it solves.

For the developing world, the problems are more profound. The developing world may not be formally bound by Kyoto, but it is dependent on the development strategies favoured by developed nations. Arguably the best way for the developing world to deal with the consequences of global warming, whatever these might be, is by pushing ahead with industrialisation – which will require prioritising development over low emissions, and having more, not less, of a human impact on the surrounding environment.

Given that the Kyoto Protocol relies on the morality of holding back and doing less, and encouraging more and more countries to play the game, the very real development cost facing the developing world should concern us every bit as much as the hypotheses over global warming.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

(1) Illarionov Makes His Case On Kyoto, Moscow Times, 18 December 2003

(2) ‘Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Austria and Belgium were the worst offenders, the report said, while the UK was forecast to overshoot the EU’s target by a comfortable margin of 1.4% and Sweden by 3.3%. That compared with Spain undershooting the target by 33.3% and Ireland by 26.8%. ‘ EU nowhere near meeting Kyoto targets, Guardian, 3 December 2003

(3) The greening of America, by Will Hutton, Observer, 7 December 2003

(4) See Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis, IPCC
(5) See Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, IPCC

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Topics Science & Tech


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