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Kyoto - a lot of hot air

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Monday, 8 December 2008

With the signatories of the Kyoto protocol now getting down to the serious business of trying to work out targets for the next round of cuts emissions, the activists are out in force pushing for extremely deep cuts. The most frequent suggestion is for a 20 per cent reduction on 2000 emission levels by 2012, but there have been suggestions of cuts of up to 30 per cent on 1990 levels.

Deep or shallow, these figures are fantasy. They were unlikely before the financial crisis, but they are impossible now and, in any case, the Kyoto process has never had, and probably never will have, the slightest effect on global industrial emissions. At best, the whole Kyoto process is a form of theatre in which the national actors, with varying degrees of sincerity, are playing to their electorates. The process gives them a chance to be seen to be doing something.

Since the financial crisis, the overseas media has been busy noting the objections of Poland and Italy in particular to any serious cuts, with several other small players also grumbling.


Again these countries may simply be playing to their electorates - reassuring them that their interests are being safeguarded - but this does not bode well for any agreement on serious cuts which the parties might actually observe. Another problem for activists is that global temperatures have been declining in recent years, and it’s been unseasonably cold in Europe recently - all of which takes the edge of the urgency of agreeing to cuts.

When confronted with the unpleasant truth that an agreement on deep cuts is unlikely - or, at least, a truth that is unpleasant to them - activists respond that countries must agree on cuts because they “have to”. More realistically, they can also point to the financial crisis as general economic downturn as likely to put a crimp in industrial emissions, and in that they may be right. A lot of people will be put out of work by the downturn, if not impoverished, but at least one result will be to reduce the rate of growth in emissions. Activists should be happy.

Similarly, the possibility of severe economic problems in China - there have been reports of substantial factory closures - and consequent severe civil unrest, should bring smiles to their faces. Unemployed, rioting Chinese are not likely to be adding to industrial emissions.

Another point they make is that US President elect Barack Obama is about to be sworn in, which they believe indicates that America may do something about Kyoto. All this shows is that activists live in a different world. We will return to America in a moment. First, let us review the Kyoto scorecard.

The news agency Bloomberg recently counted up individual reports by nations to estimate that 20 of the 37 nations who originally signed the Kyoto Protocol agreed to in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, had failed to meet their commitments on emission cuts. The November 14 report notes that the non-complying countries include Japan, Italy and Australia. Earlier this year Canada also declared that it would not meet its commitments under Kyoto.

In other words a majority of signatories to this agreement have not met targets, and they were relatively easy targets. These were mostly 8 to 12 per cent of 1990 level emissions, depending on the country, but other circumstances meant that this generally worked out to many of the countries involved not having to do very much.


Germany and the Eastern European countries have been renovating their economies after the collapse of communism, so cuts were not difficult to find. Britain was switching its electricity industry to natural gas from the North Sea, and France’s electricity industry is mostly nuclear anyway. Russia, whose signature on the Protocol in late 2004 triggered its provisions, did not have to do anything at all. Those countries failing to meet their Kyoto requirements are meant to buy sufficient carbon credits to make up the shortfall, but it is not clear that they are doing so.

The two countries that would have been required to do something about emissions were the two that initially refused to sign - Australia and the US - on the ostensibly reasonable grounds that because it excluded developing countries, notably India and China, the protocol would have no effect apart from making the countries that signed it feel good. As has been pointed out time and again, before the financial crisis China was building coal-fired electricity plants equivalent to far more than the total Australian generating capacity, each year.

Perhaps we should get China onside? China’s chief contribution to the Kyoto debate so far, has been to demand money in return for cutting their emissions. If they can be lured to the negotiating table with the promise of umpteen billion dollars - the sum would have to be huge - the Chinese would negotiate hard before striking some sort of deal. (Let’s put the question of who will pay this money into the too hard basket.)

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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