Kyoto Treaty takes force

Yesterday, Wednesday 16 February, marked the entry into force of the Kyoto Treaty, designed to control and reduce the global emission of greenhouse gasses.

Of course, the most noteworthy part of the whole thing is that the US, producer of about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gasses, is not a signatory. Nevertheless, it’s great to see the EU, most notably, committed to controlling emissions.

There’s lots that could be said, and perhaps I will if people are interested. But for now, I’ll comment on the three most commonly used criticisms of the treaty: developing country exceptions; effects on economic growth; and effectiveness in reducing emissions.

Firstly, the exemption granted to developing countries. The treaty requires a gradual control, and eventual reduction, of greenhouse gasses by signatory countries, measured relative to their 1990 emission levels. Obviously, if enforced rigidly, this would permanently entrench economic divisions, as the developing world would never be able to emit as much per person as the developed world. As a result, developing countries are not held to targets at the moment.

Where this really matters is the case of China, and to a degree India. China is now the world’s second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, thanks to its coal-intensive industry. The US has refused to sign a treaty that does not impose restrictions on China. However, in my opinion, the only truly moral standard for emissions is equal emissions per person — which would give China the right to about five times the US’s emissions.

However moral that is, however, it is clearly unsustainable. Global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are about 60% above what they were before the start of the industrial revolution. There are reasons to believe, though, that even though Kyoto does not impose restrictions on China, emissions growth will slow. To start with, China just issued a statement saying they are starting to impose tighter restrictions. Further, the knowledge that Kyoto will apply to them relatively soon will tend to make development happen in a pre-emptively cleaner way. Lastly, carbon trading — discussed next — will induce the developed world to assist in providing cleaner technology.

The second argument is that Kyoto has too negative an effect on economic growth to justify its benefits. Various studies have purported to show a huge economic cost, perhaps a substantial fraction of a percent of global GDP growth over the next century. The obvious answer is that having a livable Earth is worth far more than this. But proponents on both sides seem to enjoy quoting huge figures over many decades. As I see it, the science of global warming is not concrete, but is frightening. Perhaps a decade will prove it all a false alarm, at which point Kyoto can be dismantled with little negative effect. On the other hand, if we do land up in hot water, as it were, a decade headstart might make solving the eventual problem far cheaper.

Centrally, however, it seems the Kyoto mechanism is about the best one can get for reducing emissions cheaply. Rather than enforce uniform reductions across the board, Kyoto provides for trading “carbon credits”. This allows industries where it is prohibitively expensive to buy carbon quotas from other companies or countries, or to plant forests to offset their emissions. This means that companies and countries have the incentive to be as clean as possible, as they can sell unused quota; and also means that emission reductions are made in the areas of the economy in which it is cheapest to move to cleaner technology.

The last critiscism of Kyoto is normally made by people on the other side of the fence: green organisations believe that Kyoto is doing far too little. Unfortunately, the long process that was attempted to bring the US onboard has left the treaty far, far weaker than it was originally. So it really doesn’t mean much for a number of years to come. However, I don’t think one should underestimate the value of having a framework finally in place, and the shift of public opinion that has resulted. The US’s position is looking increasingly isolated, which is exciting to see; and should global warming start accelerating noticeably, it is far easier and quicker to lower the carbon quotas in place, than to negotiate something like Kyoto from scratch.

Greenhouse gasses are a problem that will never be solved as easily as the removal of CFCs prevented the destruction of the ozone layer. The Kyoto treaty, however, weak as it is, seems to me to offer a good mix of smart economics, moral acceptability, and hope for the future.

3 thoughts on “Kyoto Treaty takes force

  1. Your point about China is certainly interesting. One of my good friends from HS is now working in Beijing for the month and he is just saying that the whole city smells like car exhaust (and cigarettes). I do hope that China is actually implementing those measures. It is kinda weird that people would want to have a nice economy right now instead of having a clean Earth for their children…


  2. Yes, hopefully China is! I get the feeling that the pollution is far more in the cities, as opposed to places like the US, where smog controls are pretty strong, and it’s factories and power plants away from cities that are more significant.

    As far as the economy, I have even read an argument here that we should burn more fossil fuels now, to strengthen the economy more quickly, so that we have more capability to solve the problem later, when presumeably we’ll have some new technology. Seems like a risky strategy to me!


  3. Speaking of car exhaust and cigarettes, I’ve always wondered how much carbon dioxide is produced annually by the smoking of cigarettes. Any ideas?

    And speaking of China and power plants, there’s been a bit of news recently about China pushing forward with nuclear pebble bed reactors, which could potentially be cheap, safe (relatively), and simple nuclear reactors. Such reactors could dramaticallly reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and China is the only country making a huge push for them. (South Africa and Germany are working on them as well, but China can progress more quickly with nuclear reactors due to the fact that they can ignore the fears of the populace). Also, the Three Gorges Dam which should be finished in about 2010 and will produce roughly 18 million kilowatts ( = 18 gigawatts). That’s a lot of cheap, environmentally friendly (if you ignore the destruction of the Three Gorges region ecology) power. And unlike the US, where most of the rivers we can dam are dammed, I believe that China still has plenty that they’re working on.

    I had a point in this somewhere. Ahh, yes! Even if China isn’t being restricted by the Kyoto Treaty, they’re taking dramatic steps to reduce reliance on oil, at least for energy production. The US, however, is looking everywhere other than where it should for new energy. Wind power – inconsistent, kills animals, causes local climate change. Solar power – inconsistent, inefficient, and environmentally unfriendly to produce the solar panels (lots of heavy metals and energy have to be used). Tidal power – consistent, but very disruptive to the environment. Geothermal power – insufficient by far for what we need. Where does that leave us? Fossil fuels – bad for environment. Fission – we should develop small pebble bed reactors. Right now it’s the best option. And if we were willing to put sufficient funds into it, I truly do believe that we could have workable fusion reactors before too long (I did spend two summers in the Fusion Energy Division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, so I know a decent amount about the progress that has been made in the last decade).

    Anyway, like I said, the US is looking everywhere other than where it should, which is to say, Nuclear Power (both fission and fusion), because of our irrational fear of anything with the word nuclear attached to it.


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