Kyoto COP out

Report from Milan on the UN conference on climate change.

Dominic Standish

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December brought a build-up of high pressure to the Milan region. Between 1 and 12 December, over 4000 delegates have been at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) ninth conference of the Convention of Parties (COP 9). The cloud hanging over the conference was the Kyoto Protocol, signed by 172 countries in 1997 to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.

During the conference, an imaginative range of problems has been blamed on global warming. BBC News ran a feature about how it has hit Italian winemakers (1). ‘Lack of snow last winter, almost no rain in spring or summer and searing temperatures for prolonged periods have had a major impact on the grape harvest. There has been a 20 per cent reduction in output’, reported the focus on a Barolo vineyard.

Following the release of a report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on 2 December, fears grew about melting glaciers and less snowfall in low-lying Alpine ski resorts (2). ‘Many resorts, particularly in the traditional, lower altitude resorts of Europe, will be either unable to operate as a result of lack of snow or will face additional costs, including artificial snowmaking, that may render them uneconomic’, the report stated.

At the COP 9 conference, Damiano Di Simine, president of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA), outlined the specific impact of warming on the Alps. ‘The Alps are in an area of the world in which climate change is more accentuated’, he said. ‘The general rise in the level of temperature is about 0.6-0.7 degrees, in the Alps the order of change is plus 1.5, with measurable affects on the retreat of glaciers.’

In a presentation on 11 December, the World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed that 150,000 deaths a year are linked to climate change. The WHO estimated that this could double by 2030, although there was significant uncertainty about future warming trends. ‘We don’t know what all the effects of climate change are likely to be’, said Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum, a WHO scientist. This did not prevent the scientist from making doomsday forecasts about the future impact of climate change with ‘winners and losers.’ Campbell-Lendrum predicted that underdeveloped countries would see the highest toll from warming.

A representative of the Inuit people of Canada and Alaska, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, declared that they are already the victims of global warming. She announced at COP 9 that a human rights case is being launched against the US government. Watt-Cloutier claimed the oceans are too warm due to climate change, causing roads, airports and harbours to collapse. In addition, there has been erosion of house foundations near the seashore, and people have moved to safer areas. The Inuit have the Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to help them put pressure on George W Bush’s administration (3).

No doubt the Inuit have experienced problems related to climate change. But in focusing their energies on trying to blame and shame the US government, political posturing may be replacing the rational debate that could help construct the protection that the Inuit need.

Blaming the USA was a strong theme of the conference. The current US administration is widely held responsible for the uncertainty surrounding the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, which will only be approved when 55 signatories have ratified it. These countries must include industrialised countries that produced 55 per cent of the developed world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 1990. President Bush pulled out of the Kyoto agreement in 2001, as has Australia. Then in October 2003, Russia, whose ratification would allow the Protocol to be implemented, started to waver in its decision.

During COP 9, there were contradictory statements from the Russian government about whether it will ratify the Protocol, which caused heated debates in Milan. Activists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) held a demonstration in the main hallway of the COP 9 conference calling for urgent Russian ratification. Russia’s deputy economy minister, Mukhamed Tsikhanov, has indicated that ratification could be put to the Duma (lower house of parliament) next year.

Why are these governments reluctant to support the Kyoto Protocol? This question was addressed at another conference held in Milan, ‘From Greenhouse Effect to Climate Control’, on 29 November (4). Supporters of the Protocol want to limit various human activities because they believe that this will reduce future warming, which is why countries that ratify the Kyoto Protocol would be required to curtail activities that generate GHGs, especially energy production, transport and agriculture.

Several economists described how this could have a negative impact on economic growth. Margo Thorning of the International Council for Capital Formation (Belgium) presented economic models showing that gross domestic product could be severely affected if the Kyoto Protocol is implemented. Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (USA) questioned the environmental benefits of reducing GHGs. The Protocol ‘is an all pain, no gain diet’, according to Smith.

While there is a consensus that we have experienced limited global temperature rises over the past 150 years, there are disagreements about the reasons for warming. S Fred Singer of the University of Virginia correctly pointed out on 29 November that the solar cycle has been ignored as a cause of warming by those promoting the Kyoto Protocol. However, opponents of the Protocol sometimes highlight such natural factors as determining the impact of climate change, in an attempt to reject the notion that human-created GHGs are to blame.

During my own presentation to the conference on 29 November, I emphasised that the key factor regarding the impact of climate change on society is development. As an example of a social response, I examined the mobile barriers being built to protect Venice from flooding and rising sea levels. Construction work on the barriers began in early 2003 and the estimated completion date is 2011. Regardless of whether climate change is due to GHGs or natural factors, such initiatives by societies will govern how we experience it.

Yet environmentalists at COP 9 used the example of Venice sinking to put pressure on the US undersecretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky, to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. ‘Venice’s destiny is linked to that of the planet’, Paolo Cacciari, a Venice municipal councillor, told a news conference after a letter signed by 73 coastal cities worldwide was submitted to the US delegation. ‘If Kyoto is not ratified, we will be submerged’, he added.

These assertions imply the only problem for coastal cities like Venice is rising sea levels due to climate change. But the best long-term measurements available suggest that rising sea levels have been less important than subsidence, or lowering of the land level. Between 1897 and 1983, the relative sea level (RSL) in Venice rose 23cm, according to measurements by the Italian National Research Council. Twelve centimetres of the 23cm RSL rise was due to subsidence, and 11cm was caused by rising sea levels.

Venice is now flooded roughly 43 times a year, compared with seven at the start of the twentieth century. Climate change could mean the RSL would rise more in the near future, although it could also mean that it falls. We are simply unable to predict long-term trends accurately. However, these campaigners linking Venice sinking to the Kyoto Protocol have ignored the measures to protect the city. The mobile barriers plus various internal defence construction works will not prevent all flooding indefinitely. But they provide the best solution for the foreseeable future. The campaigners’ climate alarmism is a barrier to solving problems like Venice sinking, as I have explored in contributions to two new publications (5).

The USA has been cast as the villain of global warming as it pumps out GHGs and rejects the Kyoto Protocol. But most European Union countries are failing to meet their commitments under the pact. According to a EU report that coincided with COP 9, existing measures in the 15-country bloc would result in only a 0.5 per cent reduction in GHG emissions in 2010 from 1990 levels. The EU pledged to reduce these emissions by eight per cent under the Kyoto Protocol between 2008 and 2012. Britain and Sweden are the only two EU nations on track to meet their targets.

Considering these trends, and with ratification of the Kyoto Protocol uncertain, many opponents of the agreement were jubilant at COP 9. But if the Protocol fails for these reasons, it will be a hollow victory. The argument that needs to be won is that societies determine the impact of climate change, and economies can grow simultaneously without imposing limits on development. Instead, opponents of the Protocol have constantly relied on passive factors to challenge it – that the sun causes warming (not human-generated GHGs), on poor EU progress with cutting GHGs or on key countries not ratifying.

This means that the underlying assumption of the Kyoto Protocol, that we should restrict development to reduce warming, has not been tackled. Indeed, EU countries closed COP 9 by stating that they would implement the Protocol even if it is not ratified. ‘The Kyoto Protocol is the only game in town’, said the German environment minister, Juergin Trittin, on the last day of the conference. And while the US baulks at taking action at a federal level, individual states, such as California, have already imposed their own regime of limits on transport emissions.

‘The Kyoto Protocol was never expected to solve the problem of climate change in the first commitment period, the five years between 2008-2012’, stated the Climate Change Secretariat of the UNFCCC. ‘It is just the first step. Negotiations as to what should be done next will have to start soon.’ So it was the opponents of the Kyoto Protocol who copped out in Milan, because the demand to restrict development in the name of climate change goes unchallenged.

Dominic Standish is writing a PhD on Venice and environmental risks. He also writes for many media organisations, including the leading Italian news wires agency, Ansa. He has contributed to the new book Adapt or Die. The Science, Politics and Economics of Climate Change, edited by Kendra Okonski, Profile Books, published in December 2003 (dstandish@europe.com)

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

(1) Global warming hits winemakers, Kate Poland, BBC News Online, 5 December 2003

(2) ‘Climate change could affect Italian ski resorts’, Dominic Standish, Ansa, 4 December 2003

(3) Global warming is killing us too, say Inuit, Paul Brown, Guardian, 11 December 2003

(4) Kyoto and our adaptive capacity, Dominic Standish, Tech Central Station, 4 December 2003

(5) See Adapt or Die. The science, politics and economics of climate change edited by Kendra Okonski, Profile Books, December 2003; and Dall’effetto serra alla pianificazione economica (From the Greenhouse Effect to Economic Planning) edited by Kendra Okonski and Carlo Stagnaro, Rubbettino/Leonardo Facco, December 2003

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