The Kyoto Protocol, which limits the earth-warming greenhouse gases that countries emit, came into effect from February 16, 2005. As signatories to this protocol, 141 industrial countries have agreed that they would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide, the outcome of burning fossil fuels) by 5.2 per cent, between 2008 and 2012.
Some idea of how diluted this target is can be gauged by the fact that the European Union, which has always been at the forefront of initiatives to reduce global warming, wanted during the landmark 1997 discussions in Kyoto, reductions of 15 per cent. The Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, the most authoritative scientific body, advocated a 60 per cent reduction in 1990. This is why Greenpeace termed the Kyoto treaty of 1997 a "tragedy and farce".
It does not require great scientific perspicacity to discover that Earth's climate is growing increasingly erratic, as mild winters in Europe and the US, snowfall for the first time in living memory on a mountain in the UAE, fickle monsoons in South Asia and hotter summers in Europe all make abundantly obvious.
The only uncertainty is how much earth's average temperature will rise and by when; there is no longer any room for "ifs" on climate change, except for insufferable sceptics and spin doctors in the employ of the fossil fuel industry. There is a secular rise in temperatures, with world records being broken virtually by the decade, if not the year.
Countries like the US and Australia are not signatories to the protocol. In fact, the Kyoto Protocol has been stymied by the obdurate stand taken by President Bush, who - as climate change activists never fail to remind us - was a failed oil businessman, but presides over the most polluting nation. Three years ago (2002), he finally admitted that there was a link between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, only two decades after most of the rest of the world had been convinced of this human-made phenomenon. But because Bush is so close to the fossil fuel industry, which contributed $25 million to his first election campaign, he has refused to take stringent measures to combat global warming.
The other reason is that he and the Republican Party are more closely allied to big business in general and he knows that any reduction in emissions will make American industry less competitive in the global market. This is why he has gone on record as stating that "US lifestyles are not negotiable", implying not only that Americans are accustomed to profligate consumption of energy, particularly with their gas-guzzling automobiles, but that he is not prepared to cut jobs by investing to make industry more energy-efficient. The demand for electricity has risen by 45 per cent over the last two decades in the US. President Bush has made no secret of citing the fact that China and India, which account for over a third of the world's population but have no obligations as yet to reduce their emissions, as an additional reason for not signing the Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto Protocol has recognised that developing countries have a "common but differentiated responsibility" to take measures to reduce their emissions. These include the formulation of programmes to improve "local emission factors", inventories of emissions and "sinks" that remove these gases from the atmosphere. All signatories are also committed to publish data on mitigation and to cooperate in promotion of environmentally sound technologies. By implementing such measures, countries like India (which now produces only 2 per cent of the world's emissions) will be taking the first step towards compliance, bound to be enforced in a decade or two.
As the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi has pointed out, the US is responsible for a quarter of the total greenhouse gases, with an average American responsible for 19 times more emissions than the average Indian. Such issues of equity are hardly likely to sway the US and even Australia.
One impact of the Kyoto Protocol will be the expansion of what is known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), by which countries in the North can reduce their emissions by paying developing countries to launch projects which will achieve the same targets. A typical example is a forestry project, which will absorb carbon dioxide, and thereby reduce the planet's load. It is being described as the "biggest cooperative enterprise humans have ever embarked upon".
The mechanism permits emitters to reduce the world's greenhouse gas emissions - say by funding a project to burn methane produced from landfill sites in India - rather than resorting to the more expensive option of reducing the same amount of emissions at home. The Netherlands CDM Facility is developing the 78 MW Rio Amoy' large hydro project in Colombia, which will generate 1.8 million carbon "credits" by 2012.
But several doubts persist about such a mechanism. The morality of a country or company buying its way out of commitments without reducing its own emissions is highly debatable. The World Bank is propagating the use of this mechanism as a market intervention, as opposed to environmental controls, and has pointed out that even a decade ago, $100 million worth of greenhouse gases were traded in this way.
Political and business elites in China and India have seized upon the mechanism as a heaven-sent opportunity to earn dollars by being paid to set up projects to absorb the emissions from the global North. The Bush administration is particularly keen to enter into bilateral agreements for such projects with India and other countries, instead of signing the Kyoto Protocol. During a recent visit to Mumbai (India) by Lord Hunt of Chesterton, who is a top British climate modeller, Indian businessmen complained that their government had failed to capitalise on the opportunities which this Kyoto Protocol instrument presents, unlike their Chinese counterparts.
But this is actually a short-sighted policy, because it now costs an average of only around $3 per tonne of carbon saved, for instance, by washing coal to make it cleaner when it is burnt.(This is the current global average cost, which will rise when India and others have to reduce their emissions themselves.)
However, as developing countries' energy consumption rises, they will be forced to cut emissions too and the cost of doing so will rise several times. Where will these countries obtain the funds to do this without cutting down on the use of energy? The danger is that these countries will sell out cheap in the near future, but pay a high price later on.
There is already a bad precedent in the Montreal Protocol, which governs the third biggest greenhouse gas - chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. A fund was created to pay developing countries to switch to CFC-free technologies but it was voluntary and the resources have fallen far short of the
needs of these countries. The irony is that in the North, this treaty is held up as an excellent model of international cooperation.