Beneath the buzz of news last week, it was easy to overlook one important story — as much of the media did. On Thursday, the Russian Federation submitted to the United Nations its ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, beginning a 90-day countdown to the protocol’s entry into force. As a result, on Feb. 16, 2005, the protocol will become legally binding on the 128 nations that have signed it.
Little doubt remains that something must be done about the sheer volume of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases (GHG) humanity is spewing into the Earth’s atmosphere. So far, however, the only comprehensive effort to deal with this problem has been the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Kyoto Protocol.
First signed seven years ago, on Dec. 10, 1997, the protocol will encourage participating nations to cooperate in cutting GHG emissions. But even if the protocol works flawlessly, it will do little to reduce global GHG emissions unless several major obstacles are overcome.
GHGs and water vapor trap the heat that radiates from Earth, causing surface temperatures and the atmosphere to warm. Without this warmth, the Earth would be uninhabitable, but elevated warming of the planet results in climate change that can affect weather patterns, marine systems, plant and animal habitats, and everything else we depend on for food production and economic well-being.
So, has warming begun? Yes, according to the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.
How much will the planet warm and what will the effects be? No one can say for sure. Think about how unreliable weather reports can be; now imagine trying to predict weather and climate patterns for the entire globe for decades to come — you get the idea.
Alarmingly, scientists worldwide are documenting changes in the natural world due to warming. Glaciers and the polar ice caps are melting, coral reefs are dying due to warmer water temperatures, and plant and animal species are changing their natural dispersal, range and migratory patterns worldwide.
Here are some other facts on carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide:
* In 2002, total global emissions of carbon dioxide totaled 24,532 million metric tons, according to the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.S. was the worst offender (5,749), followed by China (3,322), the Russian Federation (1,522) then Japan (1,179). India generated less (1,026), while the nations of Western Europe as a whole emitted 3,852 million metric tons.
* Per capita emissions in 2002 were highest in Qatar, reaching 91.5 metric tons. Americans averaged 19.7 tons per person, Australians 18.2 tons, Japanese 9.1 tons, Chinese 2.3 tons and Indians 1.1 tons. The world average per capita was 3.8 tons, according to the UN Development Programme.
By any measure, GHG emissions, particularly of carbon dioxide, are soaring, and common sense calls for action. Unfortunately, the UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol are not a planet-saving international legal regime: The protocol offers too little too late. Nevertheless, a majority of the world’s nations have signed the protocol, and it is all we have to begin building broad-based cooperation on climate change.
One problem is that the protocol lacks teeth. Many scientists believe that 50 to 60 percent cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions are needed to prevent our climate from destabilizing. The protocol calls for an overall cut of just 5.2 percent from 1990 emission levels, and this only applies to a limited number of industrialized nations. Japan, for example, is committed to reducing emissions by only 6 percent from 1990 levels.
Another obstacle is that the United States, which releases nearly a quarter of all carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide, has rejected the treaty. The Bush administration and the U.S. Congress refuse to ratify. They claim it will harm U.S. economic interests, and are demanding that more developing nations join the agreement.
Of course, no nation wants to encumber its own economy or sign imperfect international agreements, but this is exactly what most of the industrialized world has done (except Australia, which also refuses to ratify) in order to foster fundamental cooperation for global security. The U.S., however, refuses to cooperate until China and India are held to the same standard, despite their “developing” status.
The U.S. is home to only 5 percent of the world’s people, but it releases nearly a quarter of global carbon-dioxide emissions.
China and India, the two largest carbon-dioxide emitters not required to make cuts under the protocol, are in a class apart. China’s emissions are climbing (13.6 percent of global emissions), but its population is 4.5 times that of the U.S. and it still emits 40 percent less than the U.S annually. Even if China increases its emissions eightfold, it will still be emitting less per capita than the U.S. India can increase its per capita emissions by a factor of 18 and still not match U.S. levels.
Still the U.S. refuses to step forward first, demanding that China does so too.
In the long term, nothing could have more dire consequences for the atmosphere than allowing China and India to remain outside the Kyoto process. Nor is there any better way to guarantee their participation than by making sure that every industrialized nation is already fully cooperating with the protocol.
For now, however, American oil and coal interests are in denial and paying lobbyists to ensure that the government shares their fantasy.
As a result, the world community must bear the burden of U.S. inaction while striving to tackle an unpredictable natural phenomenon with predictably unwieldy man-made treaties.
However, as imperfect as international law is, it can get the job done, as we have seen with the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Few people know this law by name, and it, too, is flawed — yet it has succeeded in phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals.
Kyoto Protocol signatories account for over 60 percent of industrialized countries’ carbon-dioxide emissions. Now, as the protocol comes into force, we may well see a burst of cooperation among nations, perhaps as soon as next month’s conference of the parties.
And recognizing the low esteem in which the U.S. is held worldwide these days, it wouldn’t be surprising if more nations chose to participate — not despite the U.S. refusal, but because of it.
After all, who doesn’t enjoy finessing a bully into cooperation?