Vol. 5 Num 215 Fri. December 31, 2004  

Letter From Europe
New lease of life for Kyoto Protocol

At about this time, last year, I was rather skeptical about the future of the Kyoto Protocol. As a reflection of this mood, in an article published in The Daily Star on December 12, 2003, I wrote: "The United States continues to be the world's largest polluter and has even increased its share as a percentage of total emissions of the world (from 23.47 percent to 25.39 percent). The Bush administration has obstinately refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Now to make things worse, Putin's Russia has also shown its unwillingness to ratify the protocol, which requires ratification by countries emitting at least 55 percent of global emissions, to come into effect. Therefore, the Kyoto initiative to control and reduce greenhouse gas emissions on an internationally agreed basis will, at least for the time being ,come to an end."

Well, after one year, what is the situation today? The single most important event in this field that has taken place during this year is that, despite considerable procrastination, Russia has finally ratified the protocol , which means that the treaty will now legally come into effect on February 16, 2005. This will inevitably put further pressure on the United States and Australia, (together they are responsible for 30 percent of global emissions ) to either sign the protocol or do more on emission control on their own than what they have been doing until now.

The recently concluded Buenos Aires Summit on Climate Change, which by the way, was attended by representatives of 129 countries, produced a mixed bag of results. While the Delhi and Milan summits (where the last two summits were held ) ended in frustration because of the uncertainty about the treaty's future, the Buenos Aires summit has ended on a more positive note. There is a lot of enthusiasm because of the relative success. True, immediate expectations on the control of greenhouse gas emissions are limited . The treaty will expire in 2012 and the protocol does not apply to China, India, and a host of other so-called developing nations, whose emissions are rising at an alarming rate. Yet, the fact remains that after years of painful negotiation, procrastination, downright antagonism, and even pressure to boycott the talks, it has now become a reality. In my opinion, it is a good news for the environmentalists, not merely because what has been achieved so far, but also because of the enormous possibilities it opens up for further negotiations on climate change in future.

The immediate task is unfortunately not to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, but to put a brake on the current rate of increase in the emission. While, the target set by the protocol for the industrialised countries (Spain belongs to this group) was a 5.2 percent reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2010 relative to 1990, Spain's actual emissions have gone up by 40 percent which is 25 percent more than what was agreed by the EU as a group. So the immediate objective for Spain is to slow down its rate of increase. With a view to achieving this objective, Spain will in future switch from coal to natural gas.

The summit also highlighted the growing gap between the EU and the United States, (which abandoned the Kyoto Protocol in 1997) on global warming. While the EU has taken up a leadership position in fighting global warming and felt the need to undertake further serious research work for the post-2012 period of the protocol (i.e. second-round of emission control after 2012) with a view to implementing stricter emission control regulations which will affect not only the current industrially developed group of nations (33 members) but also others, Bush's America wants to pursue its own environmental agenda.

This agenda includes "Healthy Forests" initiative, cancellation of a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, a more lenient mercury emission proposal than what was discussed under Clinton, abandonment of heat-trapping gases linked to global warming, attempts to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, phasing out of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, more logging in old-growth forests, etc. Because of this huge gap between the two positions and the immense pressure brought to bear on the delegates by the US, a compromise resolution was passed to organise a new meeting in mid-2005, whose only agenda unfortunately would be to exchange pertinent information on global warming.

This is a pity that on every environmental and related energy issue, to quote the International herald Tribune -- no matter whether it is "clean air, clean water, or protecting the public lands from logging, destructive mining practices, overgrazing and oil and gas drilling" -- "[Bush's] operating mode has been to remove or roll back legal safeguards without putting much in its place." If this is the attitude of the most powerful nation on earth, which also happens to be the world's worst polluter, is anyone surprised when China and India hasten to dissociate themselves from this mid-2005 meeting and the second round of emission control talks on grounds of their belonging to the group of the developing nations? Most probably South Korea and Brazil feel the same way as well.

Having said all that, one cannot afford to be too pessimistic either. Besides the fact that the Kyoto Protocol is alive (although not as vigorous as one would have liked it to be), there are other points which should please the environmentalists. As mentioned by the Globe and Mail: "Even if the Kyoto Protocol fails in the purpose for which it was intended, efforts to implement will curb energy consumption to some degree. And the new, cleaner technology that arises from these efforts may yet spread to the big fast-developing nations." As far as the United States is concerned, under Bush's pro- business policy, it will be difficult to legislate mandatory emission control measures.

But mounting pressure from the EU and the actual experience gained from Kyoto's implementation in other countries will put pressure on the American legislators to change their policy. After all, the United States with close to 25 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions continues to be the worst offender. Climate change costs will no doubt, become an important bargaining factor in future trade negotiations. The EU and other countries in a similar situation will, (it seems with the blessings of the WTO), try to use these climate change costs to keep US exports out of their countries. Will Bush's pro-business team then pay heed to the environmentalists' warnings on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming?

According to information released by the IPCC of the United Nations at the conference in Buenos Aires, if the current trends in the emission of greenhouse gases continue, natural and agricultural ecosystems will be substantially altered. The temperature will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees celsius. That will have significant impacts on human and animal health. . Due to rapid melting of polar ice, sea levels will rise and vast swaths of land will disappear under water.

The author is a columnist for The Daily Star.