No Future in Kyoto Dreaming

In 1977, the punk rock band the Sex Pistols shocked England with their nihilist anthem “God Save the Queen,” where they declared there was “No future in England’s dreaming.” They were right. England was ruled by a somnambulant socialist government that managed to lead the country to near collapse, with the dead lying unburied during the “winter of discontent,” as trade union leaders dreamed only of higher wages and jobs for life. Two years later Margaret Thatcher shook England awake, and its economy has not looked back since, despite Tony Blair’s attempts to administer sleeping pills.

For supporters of the Kyoto protocol, this is 1977. Science and reality are causing people all over the world to wake up to the realization that, like socialism, Kyoto environmentalism has no future. A brief review should suffice to demonstrate the way the tide is flowing.First, Kyoto isn’t working. As the European Commission itself admits, western Europe is likely to miss its Kyoto targets. Canada, which has signed on to the protocol, has increased its emissions more than the USA, which famously has not. Japan is also unlikely to meet its targets. New Zealand, which thought it would be able to meet its targets easily, is now facing a massive bill of $NZ1 billion to be able to live up to its commitments.Meanwhile, Russia, which signed on to the protocol at the last minute after extracting a promise of EU support for its efforts to join the World Trade Organization, is enjoying its new position of helping dictate EU energy policy.

If the EU is to come anywhere close to meeting its targets, it will have to buy billions of dollars worth of emissions credits from Russia. Those funds will go to the Russian energy corporations, now under the control of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies. To some it may seem ironic that, after the fall of communism, President Putin should be able to engineer such a massive redistribution of wealth, all thanks to Kyoto.Second, the science that supposedly drove Kyoto is looking shakier. Paleoclimatologists have recently admitted that the role of natural factors in driving temperatures may well be greater than supposed, “devaluing the impact of anthropogenic emissions and affecting future predicted scenarios.” They go on, “If that turns out to be the case, agreements such as the Kyoto protocol that intend to reduce emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, would be less effective than thought.” Meanwhile, other scientists have found that “Natural climatic excursions may be much larger than we imagine. So large, perhaps, that they render insignificant the changes, human-induced or otherwise, observed during the past century.”

At the same time, other scientists are finding greater evidence for the role of solar influence on climate, or non-greenhouse anthropogenic sources such as changes in land use. On top of the role of aerosols in cooling the atmosphere and black carbon (soot) in heating it up, it seems that there are far more factors feeding in to the global temperature variable than were thought important even a couple of years ago. There certainly seem to be many human-caused sources of warming, but whether these are the prime drivers of the recent warming trend is once again open to doubt, and not all of them are to do with fossil fuel emissions. Kyoto, which its supporters admit even if fully implemented would avert just 0.07°C of warming by 2050, may prove to be less effective at controlling global temperature than thought.Science is even hacking away at some of the other assumptions behind Kyoto. One of the assumptions that brought several countries round to backing it was that forests act as carbon “sinks,” soaking up large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it away.

So, under the terms of the protocol, countries can offset emissions by planting more trees. Groups such as Future Forests (now The Carbon Neutral Company) grew up to capitalize on this assumption. Now, however, it seems that plants themselves are a much more important source of another, more potent greenhouse gas, Methane, than was previously realized. What this means for the Kyoto provision has yet to be decided, but it is possible that the value of carbon sinks in Kyoto will have to be downgraded, costing countries like New Zealand even more. And those celebrities and organizations who have excused the carbon dioxide they produce jetting around the world to global warming conferences by planting trees may have to find new indulgences to buy.Finally, it has often been said that Kyoto may not be perfect, but it is the only game in town. No longer. Last week, the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate met in Australia. Its members, including Australia, China, India, and the U.S., are all committed to improving the climate without imposing unrealistic targets for energy starvation. As the communique said:

Our energy needs are growing rapidly, and will necessitate large-scale investments in the coming decades. We recognised that renewable energy and nuclear power will represent an increasing share of global energy supply. We recognised that fossil fuels underpin our economies, and will be an enduring reality for our lifetimes and beyond. It is therefore critical that we work together to develop, demonstrate and implement cleaner and lower emissions technologies that allow for the continued economic use of fossil fuels while addressing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. We undertook through this Partnership to cooperatively promote the deployment of promising technologies that offer greater energy efficiency and lower air pollution and greenhouse gas intensities.

When the greatest present and future emitters of greenhouse gases are prepared to get together and address the issue practically, while the Kyoto signatories fail to live up to their commitments, progress is made. These countries have awoken from the Kyoto slumber. For the rest, unless they recognize that Kyoto is actually pretty vacant, there really is no future.