Without U.S. participation, the first-ever global-warming treaty was doomed to only partial success. Will Bali be better?
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Ten years ago, the nations of the world gathered in Kyoto, Japan, to move to prevent dangerous interference with the planet’s climate. Many hoped meaningful steps would be taken to protect the Earth for future generations.
Ten years before that, scientists working through the World Meteorological Society and the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess the science of climate change. By 1995, the panel concluded there was a “discernible human impact on the climate.”
Banal as those words sound, their significance is overwhelming. They communicate awareness that our generation can irreversibly damage the Earth’s ecosystems for future generations simply by the way we live. Slowing down and stopping climate change will require societal change on a scale never contemplated previously. The Kyoto Protocol was a first attempt by the nations of the world to bring about this vast change.
Seven years later, the treaty became international law, ratified by 169 countries. Among developed nations, only the United States and Australia had been AWOL. On Dec. 4, Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signed documents to ratify the Kyoto Protocal immediately after being sworn in. The move left the United States as the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the treaty.
A core principle of the treaty is that the nations of the world have “common but differentiated responsibilities” in controlling greenhouse-gas emissions. That phrase is an acknowledgment that the developed countries of the world are responsible for most of the damaging emissions in the atmosphere and need to take the first steps to reduce emissions. Developing countries, like India and China, are not required to meet specific emission targets during the first compliance period (2008-12).
The Bush administration has argued that the United States should not be compelled to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions since China is not required to do so. And although the United States never officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty never was sent to the Senate for ratification. From 1990 to 2005, U.S. emissions increased by 16.3 percent. The Kyoto Protocol requires a U.S. reduction 7 percent below 1990 levels. Among European nations, only the United Kingdom and Sweden now are achieving real reductions in greenhouse gases. The most significant emissions reductions in the past 10 years have come from the collapse of industrial enterprises in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Looking back 10 years, it would be easy to argue that the Kyoto Protocol has been a failure. Without U.S. participation, it was doomed, at best, to only partial success. However, during the past 10 years the awareness of the impact of climate change and the impetus for strong action has grown. Devastating hurricanes, fierce wildfires, prolonged droughts and cataclysmic flooding have defined what is at stake. The consequence of inaction for the lives of those born in the past decade and their children is now obvious. The significance of Kyoto, beyond the details, is that there is now a viable international legal framework for dealing with climate change.
This month, the nations of the world will come together in Bali, Indonesia, to start negotiating for a post-2012 climate plan. What happens in Bali will set the stage for the next U.S. administration. It is hard to imagine that the United States will not want to re-engage the rest of the world on an agreement that is crucial for the health of the planet and future generations.
The magnitude of what needs to be done to stabilize the planet’s climate can hardly be understated. We must transform the ways we produce electricity, heat our homes, power our factories and transport ourselves. We need to cut the use of fossil fuels by at least 50 percent, and maybe more, by 2050. We don’t have any time to lose.
ED SMELOFF has 20-plus years of expertise in energy policy and resource planning. he is a senior manager for project development at Sharp Solar Energy Solutions group in Southern California.