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Clouds over Kyoto

01 Dec 1997

When the delegates to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio agreed to stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels by the year 2000, it seemed a fairly soft target.

Even if levels had increased over the previous two years, it was surely not beyond the wit of the world’s most technologically advanced countries to reduce them by the end of the decade. The difficult part was going to be cutting emissions below existing levels.

Five years later even that soft target has proved too difficult for most – Germany, Russia and the UK being the (accidental) exceptions. And as delegates from over 150 nations gather in Kyoto this month, the US in particular is involved in a back-pedalling exercise of Tour de France proportions. American emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have risen by more than 10% since Rio, and the US arrives in Kyoto determined to commit itself to nothing more than a return to 1990 levels sometime between 2008 and 2012. Given that the US currently emits twice as such carbon dioxide per head as the rest of developed world, its inability to make any improvements in energy efficiency is truly staggering.

The hosts, Japan, are slightly more ambitious and hope to cut emissions by 5% by 2010, while Europe is setting the pace with plans for a 15% cut. With other nations and groups of nations – such as the Group of 77 developing countries, which includes India and most of the Middle East, South East Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the 42-strong Alliance of Small Island States – taking equally strong positions, the hopes of a solution do not seem good. An agreement reached in Berlin in 1995 means that the developed world has to set a binding target before the developing nations do so, although the US is now opposed to this as well.

Aiming for a simple percentage cut in emissions for the developed world is, however, too simple a solution for what is a truly complex problem – and one that involves not only science and technology but also social and economic policies. Therefore it is not surprising that the inclusion of various ideas put forward by the business community in a wider solution seems to offer the best chance of progress.

“Emissions trading” is one of these ideas: a country that is finding it difficult to meet whatever target is agreed in Kyoto would be able to “buy” a reduction from a country that has beaten the Kyoto target. A form of emissions trading already works on a limited basis in the US – companies trade sulphur-dioxide emissions under the watchful eye of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Members of the European Union cannot complain about this system as the 15% reduction proposal from Brussels assumes that some EU members will beat this target while others will not. And if Kyoto agrees a compromise target around 5%, the EU could be an active and profitable partner in such trades.

“Joint implementation” is another possibility. The World Bank, for example, has proposed a Global Carbon Initiative where developed nations give energy-saving technology to developing nations. In return, any reduction in emissions would be credited to the developed country. The developing countries would benefit from the creation of jobs and the spread of energy-efficient technology, although they might be suspicious of a scheme administered by the World Bank. Some argue that emissions trading and joint implementation are yet further examples of the rich exploiting the poor, but if the schemes are constructed carefully and priced properly – and there is no double-counting of emissions – they could offer a “win-win” situation.

Whatever happens in Kyoto, however, Europe should stick to its promise to reduce emissions by 15%. Global emissions of carbon have already risen by 6% since 1990 and climate scientists agree that further reductions will be needed after 2010. The optimism of Rio has evaporated, and unless a significant part of the developed world has the courage to tackle the problem, the climate scientists will be proved right and we will all have to live with the consequences.

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