Kyoto Protocol may fail but some actions already underway

With crucial hurdles still to be overcome, there is a good chance that the Kyoto Protocol climate change negotiations may fail to bring the agreement into force. Even then, according to Greenpeace, proposals currently on the negotiating table could "completely undermine the Protocol's already limited environmental effectiveness". The good news though, is that a few countries and companies are taking the initiative and already committing to voluntary greenhouse gas reductions.

The prospects of the Kyoto Protocol coming into force have become more remote since the Kyoto summit, “the truth is the Kyoto Protocol is as likely to be still born as it is to come into force”, New Zealand Minister for the Environment and veteran climate change negotiator, Simon Upton told the “Implementing The Kyoto Protocol” conference in London this week.

“The Protocol is not ratifiable today for a number of reasons,” said Frank Loy, Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs at the US Department of State. The USA is part of the “Umbrella Group” which includes other non-EU OECD countries and some economies in transition. The Umbrella Group countries see emissions trading as an essential means of reducing the cost of meeting Kyoto targets, and strongly oppose any restrictions on it. This contrasts with the EU position that there should be a limit on the use of trading, to ensure that developed countries meet a minimum proportion of their obligations by actually making domestic emissions reductions.

According to Loy, domestic action would be more expensive than trading. “It is politically naive to believe that capping [trading] would push US domestic action – a more expensive treaty simply would not be ratified.”

environmental effectiveness versus political expediency?

Proposals currently on the table in the UN negotiations “could completely undermine the Proposal’s already limited environmental effectiveness” says Bill Hare of Greenpeace international. According to Hare, on the basis of current analyses and projects, “it is now clear that the potential (and actual) loopholes in the Kyoto Protocol equal or exceed the reduction requirements of the Protocol.”

On the basis of updated emission inventory data and economic and other analyses, it will now be possible for developed countries to “meet” their commitments without any significant domestic action, says Hare.

US position

There are many obstacles to implementing the Kyoto Protocol in the USA, says Paul Tebo, Vice President Health Safety & Environment, Du Pont:

  • An abundance of low-cost coal and oil
  • New nuclear and hydro power are off the table
  • The political climate is not conducive to ratifying the Protocol
  • Relatively low R&D investment in non-carbon energy, combined with continuing subsidies for fossil fuels
  • No market incentives for “climate-friendly” products
  • Public is apathetic and unlikely to support actions that impact personal lifestyle
  • Business “talks” about market approaches but then opposes specific proposal when they come up

Nonetheless, says Tebo, a small but growing number of US companies are acknowledging cause for concern, calling for action, and making commitments. DuPont started work in 1991. Tebo expects to achieve a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions between 1991-2000, and says its energy consumption has remained static over the last ten years despite a 40% increase in production.

But DuPont is acting in isolation, and has even lost a customer due to its emissions reduction commitments. Tebo says the USA needs a national plan, with incentives for action, investments for infrastructure turnover, and investments for new low carbon technology.

Industry takes action

Although negotiations are slowly faltering on, industry will be taking action, says Jonathan Pershing, head of the International Energy Agency’s Energy and Environment Division. At a recent meeting of international industry leaders, many were unsure about the Kyoto Protocol coming into force, but the majority were sure that they would take action, says Pershing.

This is born out by looking a recent industry initiatives. While the US energy companies are still fighting a defensive battle, their European counterparts are investing in renewable energy sources and making voluntary commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Business is raring to go, but held back by the lack of a government framework to recognise the value of positive actions,” says Charlotte Grezo, Director of Global HSE Management at BP Amoco.
But what will happen to corporate initiatives if the Protocol does not come into force? Grezo told edie that BP’s climate change initiatives (which include a 10% cut in GHG emissions from 1990-2010) were motivated by desires from inside the company, from customers and from society in general. So long as these desires remain they will continue regardless of what happens to the Kyoto Protocol, she says.

Next round

To date, 84 countries have signed the Protocol, but only 9 have ratified it (all of them developing countries that are not actually committed to emissions reductions). The next round of negotiations will take place in Bonn in November. The parties still hope to resolve the outstanding issues at the sixth Conference of the Parties next year.

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