Unhappy Birthday

This week marks the first anniversary of the Kyoto Protocol's coming into force. It's an unhappy birthday. The one-year-old has been badly treated by its parents, its hopes for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions seem unlikely to be fulfilled, and its prospects for survival beyond 2012 look bleak. On top of all that, it was emasculated at its very first meeting in Montreal. Jacques Chirac's “first component of an authentic global governance” has been all but abandoned by the global community.

We must first remember that, while its supporters regularly claim that it has the support of the 161 countries that have ratified it, only 34 of those countries have actually promised to do anything as a result. And of those 34 countries, the former Communist countries of the Eastern bloc have already achieved their targeted emissions reductions only by virtue of the collapse of their old, uneconomic smokestack industries. That means that the only countries that have actually undertaken to take real, active measures to rein in their greenhouse-gas emissions are the EU-15, Canada, Japan, and New Zealand.

For those few countries, the story is an unhappy one. New Zealand thought that it could make money by selling credits based on its carbon-absorbing forests, but that hope has proved illusory. The most recent estimate is that complying with Kyoto will cost New Zealand NZ$1 billion. The former Canadian government found itself completely unable to restrain emissions to the extent that they have grown by considerably more than those of the U.S. New Prime Minister Stephen Harper has essentially sidelined Canada's participation in favor of a “made in Canada” approach to reducing emissions (if it was easier to withdraw from Kyoto, indications are that he probably would). Japan has also continued to increase emissions, and tackling them is the subject of fierce debate between government departments that shows no sign of ending any time soon.

As for the EU-15, the approach seems to be one of Jedi mind tricks. Fans of the first Star Wars will remember Obi-Wan Kenobi telling a Stormtrooper that “These aren't the droids you're looking for,” while R2D2 and C3PO stood in front of him. The European Environment Agency's own figures demonstrate that the EU-15 are nowhere near their targets (despite them pooling their individual commitments into a burden-sharing agreement that supposedly ensured poorer countries like Spain and Greece would not have to constrain their economies). Yet the EU insists in its public statements that “with additional measures,” it will meet its commitments. This seems highly unlikely. Ministers have consistently called for tougher measures and then rejected those measures when they actually come up for vote. As the graph below confirms, European rhetoric and reality are diverging at a frightening rate.

The chances are, therefore, that not one major signatory (with the possible exception of the U.K., thanks largely to Margaret Thatcher's decision to switch the country's power generation from coal to gas) will actually comply with Kyoto's “binding” requirement to reduce its emissions to target levels.

It should therefore come as no surprise that, at the very first Meeting of the Parties (MOP) to the protocol in Montreal last year, the Parties voted to remove every binding element of Kyoto's requirement for penalties for noncompliance. To be sure, they adopted the penalties first agreed at the Marrakech Conference of the Parties several years ago, but then made them voluntary. Those penalties make achieving future emission reductions even harder, by increasing reduction targets post-2012 and banning measures like emissions-trading and burden-sharing agreements. So the MOP made the penalties discretionary. In other words, if a country can't meet its targets, the only way it will be penalized is if it wants to be.

Meanwhile, the MOP also agreed that any Kyoto stage II, post-2012, would see reductions commitments only for the 34 countries currently promising emissions reductions. No new country offered to join the process. And, as any meaningful stage II would require real emissions cuts beyond those factored into the original protocol, it is highly unlikely that any progress could be made toward them without significant additional expense. Moreover, the U.S., China, India, and other major emitters would still flatly reject any such constraints on their own economies.

At this point it is worth remembering precisely what Kyoto was meant to achieve. The most reliable scientific assessment suggests that Kyoto would only avert 0.07 degrees Celsius of likely warming by 2050. That difference is so small as to be immeasurable. Is all this really worth it?

Meanwhile, the world is moving on. America has shown leadership on the global-warming issue by actually bringing India and China, together with Japan, Australia, and South Korea, into a Clean Development Partnership, which concentrates on sharing technology that will make energy production less emission-heavy. The EU, it should be noted, has pooh-poohed this development publicly but has quietly replicated it in its own bilateral agreements with India and China.

The majority of the world has realized that Kyoto is something it can do without. There is little reason to celebrate this birthday.