Sun, Aug 19, 2001 - Page 9 News List

Kyoto Protocol is weakened by its compromises

As the US bows out while the EU makes concessions on `sinks,' the Kyoto Protocol will not measure up to its initial promise

By Christopher Lingle

Environmental ministers and cabinet officials from more than 160 countries attended a UN-sponsored summit on climate change in Bonn. It seems that a last-minute compromise at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP6) has isolated the Bush administration even further on the issue of the Kyoto Protocol.

This impression is far-fetched, despite the hand-wringing by pundits. In the first instance, not one industrialized country and only a dozen developing countries have so far ratified the protocol. And under the current deal, the global cut in emissions will only be about one-third of the original goal for reducing greenhouse gas output by the largest industrialized nations. Once brought into force, the Kyoto Protocol, as envisioned in 1997, would install a compliance system based on specific targets for cutting emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

Industrialized countries would be required to cut greenhouse gas emissions to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. For the US, this would mean cuts of about 20 percent from present levels. To become effective, the Kyoto Protocol (also known as COP3) needs to be ratified by 55 countries that account for most of the industrialized world's emssions. In the end, Japan sided with many of the other countries to reach a compromise agreement promoted by the EU.

Not surprisingly, the final agreement involved considerable compromises, including substantial European concessions to Japan that was seeking a softening of the approach on compliance mechanisms. The EU also conceded to Japan, Canada, Russia and others on using "sinks" to aid industrialized countries reduce carbon dioxide and other types of greenhouse gases. Sinks result from forest-management techniques wherein trees absorb carbon dioxide. It also includes a funding package to aid developing countries in adapting to climate change

Much is made of that many climate experts agree with the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) set up by the World Meteorological Organization and UN Environment Program. Three of the panel's recent reports cover the science of climate change, its impact and the technologies and policies needed to combat it. Their most recent conclusion is that temperatures could rise by between 1.4C and 5.8C this century, a shift from the 1995 prediction of an increase of 1C to 3.5C.

There seems to be an instinct for opinion makers to accept the worst case when it comes to global warming. However, evidence that the science on this issue remains unsettled is found in the panel's admission that there are gaps in scientific understanding. Consequently, the panel's forecasts may be apocryphal, despite the apocalyptic tone. Despite this evidence of unresolved scientific issues, critics of global warming tend to be ignored by the general public and often vilified or ridiculed by the media. Perhaps the most damning criticism is that impressions of a worsening outlook for global warming were caused by a change in the panel's methodology. Instead of reflecting improvements in scientific knowledge, much of the increase is explained by the fact that newer computer simulations include a wider range of scenarios relating to demographic, and technological developments.

Without scientific consensus, the economic costs relating to implementation of the Kyoto Protocol are also hard to figure. How much this would cost depends upon assumptions about technological advances and the use of mechanisms included in the protocol that allow emission cuts to be made at the lowest possible cost. According to the panel, implementation of the Kyoto Protocol could cost as little as 0.1 percent and as much as 2 percent of GDP in different regions in 2010.

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