Objection: problems with Kyoto

by Milan on December 1, 2011

in Climate change, Climate science, Economics, Ethics, International relations, Objections, Oil sands, Renewables

Every time there is a Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), people who want Canada to continue to do little or nothing about climate change bring up the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol as an argument against action.

This argument is flawed. The problems with Kyoto make it more important to develop an effective global agreement now, and that requires countries like Canada to lead the way in reducing their domestic greenhouse gas pollution.

The UNFCCC and Kyoto

To explain briefly, the 1992 UNFCCC is a framework convention that sets out the world’s general objective when it comes to climate change: preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first major attempt to make concrete progress toward that objective. Some (rich) states got emission reduction targets which they agreed to meet by 2012. Other (poorer) states did not have targets, but there were systems established to encourage them to reduce emissions as well, partly through financial help from richer countries directed through institutions like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Kyoto was an experiment in coordinated global action on climate change, and many things have gone wrong with it. The United States never joined the agreement. Some countries (like Canada) have ignored the targets they agreed to and are now producing much more pollution than they were meant to at this point. Countries like India and China, which had no targets, have seen their emissions grow rapidly. There have been problems with the CDM, such as dubious transactions involving HFC-23. Kyoto also ignores the major issue of pollution that is effectively ’embedded’ in imports.

Whole books could be (and have been) written about the flaws of Kyoto. That being said, it is wrong to see those flaws and conclude that it is no problem for Canada to ignore its Kyoto obligations, or for the UNFCCC process to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that dealing with climate change requires global action. Countries like Canada have become rich on the basis of burning fossil fuels, and currently produce an excessively high level of greenhouse gas emissions per person. It makes sense that countries like Canada lead the way on emissions reduction – a general policy known as contraction and convergence.

The challenge of climate change

If the world continues on the path of carbon-intensive economic activity, we are setting ourselves up to dramatically transform the planet’s climate by the end of this century, with severe consequences for people all over the world. Preventing dangerous or catastrophic climate change requires limiting how much greenhouse gas pollution gets added to the atmosphere; that, in turn, requires that the world abandon fossil fuels and move on to zero-carbon forms of energy. Achieving that transition will be challenging and costly, but so is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Instead of spending billions developing deepwater oil fields off the coast of Brazil, fracking shale gas in North America, or exploiting Canada’s oil sands, we could be investing our money and effort on the transition to a renewably-based zero-carbon economy of the sort described by David MacKay.

In summary: yes, there are problems with Kyoto. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. Dealing with the problem requires coordinated international action, and it requires that countries like Canada:

  • (a) take responsibility for the harm they have already caused by altering the climate through fossil fuel use,
  • (b) take the lead in developing a domestic energy system that is compatible with a stable climate, while phasing out fossil fuels, and
  • (c) help the rest of the world to achieve the same transition.

Doing our part in a fair global deal requires a willingness to compensate countries that will suffer from the climate change we have caused, and help them to develop on a safer trajectory than we did.

Our current approach doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of pure economic calculation. At some point in the future, the world as a whole will finally realize just how damaging and dangerous climate change is. When that happens, there will be a collective realization that extracting fossil fuels from shale gas and the oil sands is absolutely the last thing we should be doing. The billions of dollars invested in the technology and the infrastructure used to do that will be wasted when those facilities are forced to close down. On top of that, we will suffer the expense of the additional climate harms that arise because of our delay. Finally, we will need to deploy a zero-carbon energy basis for our economy on a compressed timeline, which is sure to be more expensive than undertaking the task over a longer span of time. It is far more intelligent to build the right thing in the first place than it is to:

  • build the wrong thing (at great expense),
  • suffer the consequences of that choice (at great expense),
  • and then build the right thing in a hurry (at great expense).

There are also major additional benefits associated with an early transition away from fossil fuels: greater geopolitical stability, less air pollution, less water pollution, less destruction of land, etc.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to curb the growth in global emissions means we face a bigger problem now than in 1997 and that we have less time to deal with it. The way to do that is to engage constructively with the international community and help drive the emergence of a fair deal, while taking meaningful steps domestically to decarbonize our economy. What we absolutely not do is use the problems with Kyoto as an excuse to continue on a carbon-intensive path of economic development that sacrifices the vital interests of future generations for the short-term profit of those alive and making decisions right now.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Sasha December 2, 2011 at 2:06 am

I agree entirely Milan.

Anon December 2, 2011 at 7:18 am

At some point in the future, the world as a whole will finally realize just how damaging and dangerous climate change is. When that happens, there will be a collective realization that extracting fossil fuels from shale gas and the oil sands is absolutely the last thing we should be doing. The billions of dollars invested in the technology and the infrastructure used to do that will be wasted when those facilities are forced to close down.

It’s possible that the world will not have this realization for such a long time that hardware in the oil sands will actually reach the end of its economic life before it needs to be scrapped.

Of course, in a world where there is so much delay before action on climate change, it is virtually guaranteed that it will progress to a very dangerous extent.

That’s an even worse outcome than wasting money on fossil fuel gear and then having to rush to build renewables later.

. December 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Climate summit was a pathetic exercise in deceit

Thomas Homer-Dixon
Globe and Mail Update

“You have been negotiating all of my life. In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets, and you’ve broken promises.”

Ms. Appadurai nailed it. There’s really only one label for the pathetic exercise we’ve just witnessed in South Africa: deceit. The whole climate-change negotiation process and the larger political discourse surrounding this horrible problem is a drawn-out and elaborate exercise in lying – to each other, to ourselves, and especially to our children. And the lies are starting to corrupt our civilization from inside out.

The climate negotiators lie to each other and the world when they claim the world can still limit the planet’s warming to two degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, the point at which many experts believe the risks from climate change rise sharply.

It’s a lie because we’ve already experienced 0.8 degrees warming, and we’ve got at least another 0.6 degrees on the way due to carbon already in the atmosphere. Given that global carbon dioxide emissions of about 35 billion tons each year are now growing at an average of 3 per cent a year – which means they’re doubling every 23 years – it’s virtually certain we’re going to use up the remaining 0.6 degrees of leeway. In fact, the emerging consensus among climate experts is that we’ll be lucky to limit warming to 4 degrees.

. December 12, 2011 at 9:18 pm

ANALYSIS | Farewell Kyoto Protocol, you did your job

It would be easy to look at the greenhouse gas-constraining Kyoto Protocol as a failure, particularly after all the desultory wrangling that oversaw its demise in all but name in Durban on the weekend.

But that might be to see Kyoto through too much of a Canadian-orchestrated prism.

In 1997, the industrialized world — save for Bill Clinton’s America — promised to roll back climate-changing, GHG emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2012, and these countries have pretty much met that goal.

Indeed, according to detailed study in September by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, the 37 main Kyoto nations plus the U.S. (which has still never ratified the treaty) have emitted 7.5 per cent less CO2 into the atmosphere in 2010 than in 1990.

What’s more, as a group, they are poised to meet the collective Kyoto target of 5.2 per cent less than 1990 by 2012, when the agreement was to kick over to a more stringent second stage, which is what the Durban conference was supposed to be about.

. December 13, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Canada still has a legal obligation under United Nations rules to cut its emissions despite the country’s pullout from the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. climate chief said on Tuesday.

Christiana Figueres also said the timing of Canada’s move, a day after a deal to extend the protocol was clinched at a U.N. summit in South Africa, was regrettable and surprising.

Canada on Monday withdraw from Kyoto, dealing a symbolic blow to the treaty, with environment minister Peter Kent breaking the news just after his return from talks in Durban.

Whether or not Canada is a party to the Kyoto Protocol, it has a legal obligation under the (U.N. framework on climate change) convention to reduce its emissions, and a moral obligation to itself and future generations to lead in the global effort,” Figueres said.

. January 31, 2012 at 8:52 pm

That was an exaggeration which reflected the loathing that the Conservative government and the prime minister, Stephen Harper, have long had of Kyoto. Back in 2002 Mr Harper described it as “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations” and vowed to fight efforts by the then-Liberal government to ratify and implement a “job-killing, economy-destroying” pact. He argues that since Kyoto does not include the largest polluters—the United States and China—meeting Canada’s commitments would hurt its energy industries without doing much to save the planet. In particular, complying with Kyoto is incompatible with stepping up oil extraction from Alberta’s tar sands, a process that releases higher emissions than pumping oil from wells.

. March 4, 2012 at 7:50 pm

ON A cold morning, when the mist rises over the canals that criss-cross the countryside, spreading over the woods and flatlands, the Netherlands does not feel like a sink-hole of pollution. But the ice-encrusted water is brimming with nitrates and phosphates, and the air is clogged with particulate matter.

The country’s poor environmental record is revealed in a report by Natuur & Milieu, an advocacy group. Rather than conduct its own measurements the group collected data from various official agencies. Its report shows the Dutch lagging behind their European peers for quality of air, soil and surface water, stuck in fossil-fuel dependency, and with exceptionally high carbon emissions.

On Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index, the Netherlands comes 20th out of the 27 EU countries.* It scores particularly badly on the quality of its soil, where those phosphates and nitrates linger in large quantities. They seep into surface water, the quality of which is also below EU guidelines. Emissions of nitrogen monoxide and dioxide are triple the EU average. Carbon-dioxide emissions rose by 15% between 1990 and 2010. Only vast purchases of emission rights keep the Netherlands below its Kyoto targets.

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