Categories: Climate Article 4

Global Warming: The Kyoto Protocol and Beyond

Edward A. Smelof*
The Pace Energy Project, Pace University School of Law, White Plains, NY, USA
*Corresponding author (current affiliation: Vote Solar, Oakland, CA, USA;

EPL, Vol.28, Iss.2, pp.63-68, 1998




Global climate change is, for several reasons, one of the greatest and most complicated challenges facing the world today. That is because climate change is international in scope, long-term in nature and involves resources - fossil fuels - that have been the very engine of industrialization and economic growth for more than 100 years. Addressing the problem requires that the nations of the world confront some very fundamental issues including those of national sovereignty, intergenerational equity, human responsibility for the survival of other species, questions of poverty and affluence and possibly even limits to economic growth. Any solution to the problem will require the creation of new international institutions, economic arrangements and legal instruments that will have profound implications for global trade, the paths to economic development available for developing countries and core industries in developed countries. An important first step was taken in Kyoto, Japan with the agreement on a legally binding framework to address the problem of global warming.

The Consequences of Climate Change

It is now commonly observed that no environmental issue comes close to rivaling climate change. It effects every ecosystem on the planet. Entire island-nations could be eliminated in the next century. Diseases now largely under control could reach epidemic proportions. The diversity of the earth's biosphere will be significantly diminished with thousands of species perishing. Tens of millions of people may have to be relocated. Water scarcity, water pollution and air pollution in certain locales will get worse. It is possible to devise scenarios as to how the human species might adapt to these changed environmental conditions. In fact, some argue that human wealth will be so great 50 years or 100 years in the future that adaptation to climate change will be but a minor inconvenience and future generations would be worse off if economic growth were slowed. However, there are some plausible catastrophic changes to the earth's biosphere that humans would have great difficulties adapting to in a short time period. These include a runaway greenhouse effect, the disintegration of the ice sheets of Antarctica and the shifting of ocean currents. A runaway greenhouse effect could occur if global warming triggers enormous additional releases of greenhouse gases from Arctic tundra, forests or the ocean. This would lead to a rate of climate change much more rapid than predicted by current climate models. Evidence shows that the Alaska tundra has already become a net source of carbon dioxide rather than a sink, raising the possibility of a dangerous positive feedback to global warming. The melting of the Antarctic ice sheets would cause wide-scale flooding of coastal regions where hundreds of millions of people live. Changes in the present pattern of ocean currents could also lead to sudden climate shifts. Changes in the flow of the Gulf Stream could cause part of the North Atlantic, especially Europe, to become dramatically colder. Anyone of these events could be truly catastrophic for our descendants. Each scenario raises the question of how to calculate the present value of avoiding future catastrophes, remote and uncertain as they may be.

What makes dealing with these future risks of a seriously degraded environment so difficult for the current generation of inhabitants of the planet is our absolute dependence on fossil fuels. Coal, oil and natural gas are the predominant fuels we use to produce electricity, heat buildings and provide mobility. The economies of the nations of the world are tightly linked to their extraction and their conversion into other forms of energy. Reducing the probability of disruptive climatic events will require sustained efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels and their replacement by other sources of energy. Such changes are perceived as economically threatening both to the producers of these fuels as well as to industries that use large quantities of them to produce other goods.

The Science

The fact that the earth's atmosphere traps heat is a long-known phenomenon. Indeed, it was in 1863 that the greenhouse metaphor was first used to describe the effect that certain gases, most notably water vapour and carbon dioxide, trap the infrared radiation that is reflected off the surface of the earth. The natural greenhouse effect, indeed, has been essential to the evolution of life on the planet. Without natural greenhouse gases the earth would not be an inhabitable place for human beings. What is of concern is that human activities are steadily and at an accelerating rate increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Human induced climate change is caused by emissions of greenhouse gases that add to the natural concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The most significant of human activities which add greenhouse gases is, of course, the burning of fossil fuels. But also significant are deforestation and land use practices.

Since the beginning of the industrial age, the concentration of carbon dioxide, a significant greenhouse gas, has risen from 280 parts per million to more than 360 parts per million. With rapid industrialization in the developing world, and continued economic growth in the developed world, human emissions of greenhouse gases will almost certainly double over the next 50 to 60 years and could triple or even quadruple before stabilizing. This is an extremely troubling prospect, because the best science indicates that even a doubling of atmospheric concentrations will cause global average temperatures to rise by 1.5 to 3.5 degrees Celsius, accompanied by a sea level rise of between 15 to 95 centimeters. This rate of warming will be greater than any observed in the last 10,000 years.

The Protocol

It was a decade ago that the nations of the world first began to address the issue of global climate change. In 1988, the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organisation established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international scientific body charged with assessing the science and economics of climate change. It was the IPCC that in 1995 concluded that there was a discernible human impact on the climate. Their work has been essential in driving the international process to address seriously climate change.

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world agreed to the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This historic treaty required all countries to inventory their emissions of greenhouse gases, develop national plans to mitigate climate change and adopt policies and take measures to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. It also required industrialized countries to reduce their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. It soon became apparent that the treaty would not come close to stabilizing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Not only did the treaty fail to address the issue of reducing emissions beyond the year 2000, but it soon became clear that many countries, including the United States, would not achieve the goal of limiting emissions in the year 2000 to 1990 levels. Therefore in 1995, the parties to the treaty came together in Berlin to adopt further measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement they reached, known as the Berlin Mandate, required industrialized countries to adopt legally binding targets and timetables to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is that mandate that led to the negotiations just completed in Kyoto.

The negotiations in Kyoto revolved around three very fundamental issues. The first was the level of greenhouse gas reductions for the developed countries. The second was the role of the developing nations in limiting greenhouse gases. The third was the mechanisms for achieving reductions of greenhouse gases such as global emissions trading and joint project implementation. Two other issues, but of lesser consequence, were the inclusion of man-made greenhouse gases (hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride) as greenhouse gases and the use of forests as sinks to offset emissions of greenhouse gases and the use of forests as sinks to offset emissions from fossil fuels.

The issue that received the most public attention was the level at which the countries of the developed world would reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. At the beginning of the negotiations the gap between the European Union and the United States was significant. The European Union proposed reducing three greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) by 15 percent by the year 2010 while the United States argued for stabilization of six greenhouse gases for the period of 2008 to 2012. Many did not think it possible that this gap could be bridged. And indeed it was not until late at night on the last day of the negotiations that this issue was resolved. In the end the nations of the world agreed unanimously that the developed nations would reduce the six greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent by 2008 to 2012.

The issue that turned out to be the most contentious, however, was the role of developing nations in limiting greenhouse gases. In the United States, the fossil fuel industry has made this issue the basis for their opposition to the treaty. They have argued that developing world countries' emissions are expected to pass those of the industrialized world in the next 20 to 30 years and that for greenhouse gases to be stabilized these countries need to participate in the treaty. They have pointed specifically to China, South Korea, Mexico and Brazil. The developing world, however, points out that it was the rich countries of the world that got rich by burning the coal and oil that produced most of the human-generated greenhouse gases that are currently in the atmosphere. In fact, emissions per capita are 5 to 20 times greater in the United States than in Brazil, China, India or Mexico. Delegates from developing nations also pointed out that at Berlin the industrialized nations agreed to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gases.

In the negotiations the United States and some of the other nations of the so-called JUSCANZ group consisting of Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand pushed for voluntary commitments by the developing world. In the end, the United States was unsuccessful in getting voluntary commitments by the developing countries into the treaty. That fact will be the biggest political hurdle for ratification of the treaty by the United States Senate, since a resolution passed unanimously earlier in the year called for participation of developing countries in the treaty. In addition, President Clinton had stated that he would seek the "meaningful participation" of developing nations as part of the US negotiating position. However, the treaty did create a clean development mechanism to assist developing countries achieve sustainable development. Countries in the industrialized world can support projects in developing countries and receive reduction credits that they can use to meet their obligations under the treaty.

The Politics

Many members of the US Congress have criticized the Administration for failing to produce a comprehensive economic analysis of the Kyoto Protocol. Senator Robert Byrd, in a letter to the President following the Kyoto Conference, has requested a comprehensive report on the economic impact of the Protocol. However, given the lack of agreement about appropriate economic methods for evaluating the impacts of the Protocol it is hard to see that any economic analysis will satisfy the majority of the members of the Senate. That means that the debate on the ratification of the Protocol will be played out on the field of public opinion. A coalition of industries including major coal, petroleum and chemical companies, some electric utilities and automobile manufacturers are expected to mount a concerted campaign against the Protocol. In the two months before Kyoto they spent over $13 million trying to put pressure on the Clinton Administration to take a hard line on the participation of developing nations as it negotiated with the Europeans. When that effort failed they, along with Republican leaders in the House and Senate, have called for early rejection of the Protocol. Senator Frank Murkowski of Alaska has already called the Protocol "dead on arrival".

The campaign against the Protocol has focused on two issues that polling and focus groups indicate are of importance to the American public: cost and fairness. Opponents argue that if the Protocol is adopted Americans will have to pay more to drive their cars and heat their homes. The Protocol is also attacked as unfair since it does not require countries like China and India to limit greenhouse gas emissions. These two issues are woven together to suggest that the Protocol would do grave harm to the US economy. Typical of the comments following the Kyoto conference are those of Thomas Donohue, President, US Chamber of Commerce who said, "If the US negotiators are looking for a way to mess up the world's most productive and prosperous economy, this agreement will do it." Given the significant majority the Republicans have in the Senate the near-term ratification of the treaty seems unlikely. However, there are some positive signs that ratification could be achieved in the 1999 to 2001 time period. First of all, as other countries ratify the treaty and as businesses in Europe and Japan prepare to meet the treaty's obligations, it may prove increasingly difficult for some US businesses opposed to the treaty to maintain their opposition. Already the US auto companies are recognizing the need to produce more fuel-efficient cars, both because of domestic pressure and the threat of losing off-shore markets to Japanese and European companies. At Kyoto, Toyota was passing out bumper stickers calling for less CO2 through "eco-driving" and promoting their new hybrid electric, all-electric and fuel-cell powered cars. Some predict that these cars could account for one-third of all new vehicles sold by 2005.

Last year British Petroleum (BP) recognized the need to be pro active in combating climate change. BP's CEO Jonathan Brown, recently committed the company to energy conservation, the development of new energy technologies, and cooperation with developing world countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. At a recent conference in Alaska he said, "It would be unwise and potentially dangerous to ignore the mounting concern. We have to be realistic, we have to focus on what we can do most effectively, we have to think radically and we have to be positive rather than defensive in the face of a serious challenge." Second, responsible Senate leaders are beginning to understand the connection between international environmental and trade policies. The acceptance of the principle of trading in greenhouse gases at Kyoto was an important step forward for the United States. While there are still skeptics among the European and developing nations, support for a pilot emissions trading programme is growing and will be a major topic of discussion at the next climate negotiations in Argentina in November, 1998. Senator Byrd, in his recent letter to President Clinton, praised the Administration for including in the Protocol emissions trading and voluntary projects between industrialized and developing nations. However, the most important political factor wo~king for ratification is the fact that the leading contender for President in 2000, Vice President Gore, has long made global warming a priority. Gore is one of the few American politicians who have a personal political stake in implementing a global warming agreement. If he is elected President in 2000 having campaigned on global warming, it would dramatically increase the chances for e eventual ratification of the Protocol.

Up until this time the American public has not been deeply engaged in the debate about climate change. Several environmental groups have conducted fOCllS groups on climate change and they have found that people rarely if ever bring up the possibility of climate change as a high priority issue. However, when probed, a strong majority of the public state that they believe that human actions are causing climate change. And they believe that the United States government should take preemptive action. A majority of the American public also state that they believe the United States should support a climate change treaty even if developing countries are not required to meet targets for limiting emissions.

Significantly, repeated surveys find that the American public cares about the environment. Interviews with voters show that there are a variety of reasons for their concern. Some favour environmental protection for religious reasons, arguing that other species should be protected because God created them. Some take a more biocentric view asserting that nature has intrinsic worth apart from its human use. Others recognize a fundamental obligation to future generations. The attitudes of the American people provide an opportunity to leverage public opinion in favour of ratification of the Protocol. By appealing to deeply held values about preserving nature and protecting the rights of future generations it may be possible to garner public support for policies that will ameliorate climate change.

EPL Climate Article 4

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