The Kyoto Compromise

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Friday 31 August 2001

The emperor of Kyoto is not wearing any clothes. This is certainly the case of the weary, weakened and pretty much nothing agreement on climate change the world agreed to last fortnight. The meeting on the Kyoto Protocol - the agreement by which the industrialised world had to cut its emissions by roughly 6 per cent over its 1990 levels - was predictably difficult. But we did not realise that the world would give away so much to get so little.

George Bush, leader of the world's biggest economy and polluter had already declared that the protocol was "fatally flawed in fundamental ways" and walked out of the multilateral discussions (see 'Look who's talking!', Down To Earth, Vol 9, No 22, April 15, 2001). The final permutation was that Japan, Canada Australia and Russia held the key to the agreement. These polluters played their cards well prevaricating to the last moment to ensure they got the deal they wanted.

Firstly, these countries wanted major concessions on the use of vegetation to sequester carbon. They got it, to an amazing extent. Now every small --0.05 ha -- area under trees can be calculated as a sink. Making it possible, in this extremely creative manner, to calculate just about every garden's ability to soak up carbon emissions. Every scrubland is included, as an area with 10 to 30 per cent tree cover has been defined as a forest. And even areas with no trees temporarily, but which are expected to revert back to being forests, can be added. Countries can also now add up any management measures taken to improve productivity of forests, agricultural and grazing lands as their contribution to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For instance, if a new fertiliser use enhances carbon storage, then the impact that it will have on the ability of the cropland to soak up carbon will be used to calculate the reduction in the country's emissions.

Under the final agreement Japan, for instance, can meet well over 50 per cent of its reduction commitment by using better forests, grazing lands, and even better agricultural management practices. The same sink advantage is gained by all other polluters which can now either fix carbon in their own lands or buy their emission reduction targets by fixing carbon in developing country forests, agricultural or grazing lands. The enormous scientific uncertainties in measuring the effective reductions in emissions, makes the Kyoto compromise nothing less than a grand and shameless fudge account.

Secondly, given this extremely creative accounting, the polluters wanted an agreement in which the crooks if caught, would not get penalised. The next big concession came on the issue of compliance. In the Kyoto Protocol, the world had to design an enforcement mechanism for the rich and powerful. The initial talk was for a punitive and legally binding compliance regime, which would put in place severe monetary penalties for not meeting the target. But the final agreement lacks teeth, with the enforcement branch politely termed as the facilitative branch. With an ineffective compliance regime, the Kyoto Protocol is now a voluntary agreement, not legally binding.

But why should we be surprised? The climate negotiations are not about the environment but the economy and every nation is working overtime to protect its right to pollute. In this sham act, Japan has been the convenient ploy to get concessions. The European Union ( eu ), which makes much of its green commitment, has a history of caving in, at the very last moment. In the same week when it was busy making euphoric proclamations about how it has saved the world by getting an agreement, the eu has decided to postpone by a further 10 years its programme to remove subsidies on coal, the filthiest and most carbon intensive fuels. Before the "historic" Kyoto agreement, eu was going to phase out these subsidies from July 2002. eu has also decided to postpone its plan for domestic emissions trading. Why? Because its own "green" companies complained that they would lose their competitive advantage.

The next grand compromise, we predict, will come when the world will bow down to the us . Bush has made it clear that the most important part of his opposition comes from the fact that key developing countries like China and India do not have binding commitments under the protocol. In round 3, which is predicted to happen at the next conference of parties meeting in November, we will be the next targets and the probability is that we will get 10 years grace period to take on legally binding commitments. Forget the fact that our emissions are nowhere close to the emissions of the industrialised North.

As yet our negotiators are blissfully lost in the quagmire of discussions on funding and technology transfer. But what we fail to realise is that without an effective climate convention we will lose a lot more than promises for a fistful of dollars. Emerging science tells us that climatic change will result in greater climatic variation and extreme events like floods, droughts and cyclones and sea level rise, leaving poor people living at the very margins of survival to become even more vulnerable. Therefore, it is in the interests of India and other developing countries to demand that the industrialised North takes effective and measurable action to reduce its emissions. The Kyoto compromise will cost the world and us a whole lot more than a new set of clothes for the emperor.
- Anil Agarwal

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