How long have we got?

Published in the New Statesman, on 16th July 2001.

The environment ministers and officials who gather in Bonn from 16-27 July for the resumed negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol will not settle the fate of the earth. The more important discussions, where the political heavy lifting will be done, will take place some 450 miles away in Genoa at the G8 Summit, which begins on 20 July.

Climate change has much in common with nuclear disarmament and trade liberalisation. All three issues go to the heart of the prospects for human well-being; all combine ferocious technical complexity with deep political passions; all require global, not national, solutions; and in all three cases, fact and reason are deeply buried in prejudice and myth.

There is, however, one significant difference between climate change and the other two issues – the timing of its resolution matters absolutely. The failure to set up the World Trade Organisation in the 1940s diminished and delayed the economic benefits of trade liberalisation for several decades, but it did not prevent their eventual realisation. Similarly, early failures to agree strategic arms limitations led to a huge diversion of wealth from social to security purposes, but did not prevent the eventual achievement of real reductions in the risk of nuclear war. In both cases, talking was a genuine alternative to war.

Talking is not an alternative to action on climate change. Carbon dioxide has a long life in the atmosphere. Although the political debate is mostly focused on human emissions, what really matters is the cumulative atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The point of controlling emissions is to stabilise concentrations. The earth’s climate will be very much easier to live in if we achieve CO2 stabilisation at a concentration of 500 parts per million (ppm), rather than 1,000ppm.

Current CO2 concentrations are close to 400ppm, well above the pre-industrial level. Without a significant reduction in emissions, they will reach the doubling of pre-industrial levels that most climate scientists regard as threatening to human well-being by 2030. Each year of delay in agreeing to reduce emissions shifts the level at which concentrations can be stabilised, and until that point is reached there is no chance of restabilising the climate.

This makes climate change an issue without precedent in international affairs. The clock really is ticking on the success or failure of these negotiations. Both the trade liberalisation and the strategic arms control agreements took five decades to achieve their most significant results. It has already taken more than a decade to get to the current impasse on climate change. Four more decades from now without serious global agreement on CO2 emissions reductions, and the human race will be well on its way to living in the wildly uncharted world of a 1,000ppm CO2 atmosphere.

Stability is the important word. It is the change, rather than the climate itself, that matters most. Only recently has the science of this aspect of climate change come sharply into focus. As it has done so, the magnitude of the upheavals that will accompany a changing climate has become dolefully more apparent.

If we are to avoid those upheavals, the future must be carbon-constrained. The challenge is to get to this future with as little dislocation to our economies as possible. The Kyoto Protocol is the door to that future. It may not be the best of doors, but it is the one we have now and it will work, if given the chance.

If we were starting today, we would build a better door with a different shape and of different materials. But that is rather like saying that, if we had known in 1950 what we knew in 1990, we could have avoided the whole tedious, expensive and dangerous progression that took us from the Partial Test Ban Treaty via Salt, Starts I and II and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The principal task in Bonn and Genoa is to keep the door open. Expectations for the Bonn meeting are low. The policy disarray that followed the Hague meeting in November last year has been compounded by the change of administration in the US. America’s flat rejection of the Kyoto Protocol as “fatally flawed” has shifted the main thrust of political effort from fixing the formidable array of disagreements over the policy detail to the political goal of keeping the US in the game.

The original negotiating text for The Hague ran to 285 pages and contained 39 “crunch” issues grouped into four “boxes”. There were 2,500 brackets in the text. Policy disagreements in international negotiations are indicated by placing amending text in brackets; the bread-and-butter work of the negotiators consists of working patiently through the brackets until they are all eliminated. The new negotiating text is only marginally simpler. Nor have informal consultations shown much movement in the positions of most countries since last November.

In particular, they seem as far apart as ever on the point where the Hague negotiations finally fractured: the wonderfully named LULUCF (land use, land-use change and forestry), which deals with the extent to which countries can claim emissions reduction credits for the absorption of CO2 by trees and other vegetation.

Is there the political will for an agreement in Bonn? Probably not. The best that most negotiators seem to be hoping for is to avoid a total breakdown and to move forward on certain technical issues. Real progress depends on Genoa. There, President Bush’s arguments for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol will be put to their most serious test yet, albeit in the privacy of an Italian warship. There are two points at the heart of his case: first, that the protocol “omits 80 per cent of the world”, and is therefore “unfair” on the US; and second, that to implement it would impose “draconian costs” on the American economy.

Leaving aside the strange sight of a US president complaining about having to live in an unfair world, these points are factually wrong. Developing countries, including China and India, are full parties to the Kyoto Protocol and have assumed binding obligations. But the protocol is designed to adapt flexibly to changing circumstances whilst still providing a stable framework. Its targets are set in the context of five-year “commitment periods”, the first from 2008-2012. Everyone, including the US, agreed that the developing countries would not be required to accept binding targets for that first period – consistent with the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio. It has always been clear that they would have to accept such targets in later periods.

In practice, while US carbon emissions have risen significantly since the protocol was negotiated in the mid-1990s, Chinese emissions have fallen by about 17 per cent despite a 36 per cent growth in GDP.

The second of Bush’s arguments is equally flawed. It is also just as strange, coming from someone who has doubted the validity of climate models which, for all their acknowledged uncertainties, look like Rolls-Royces compared to the economic models on which the “draconian costs” claim is based.

The International Panel on Climate Change and the OECD estimate the cost of full compliance with Kyoto at less than 0.1 per cent of GDP, and perhaps as little as 0.01 per cent. This is hardly draconian; it is less than the error that exists in most GDP calculations in any case.

But, as Macaulay remarked, “argument is constructed in one way and government in entirely another”. The challenge to the leaders in Genoa is not so much to win an argument with the US, as to determine whether the planet will be governed unilaterally or collectively.

Changing the US administration’s mind is a task for Americans, not for the rest of us. There are already signs that many Americans want to do so. The Republican governor of New York State recently launched his own climate action programme. Other states will follow. There are well-known differences of view in the US cabinet. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives recently blocked several carbon-intensive proposals from the White House. There will be more of this as the November mid-term elections approach. Opinion polls consistently show that Americans disagree with their president over climate change (see Andrew Stephen, page 33).

Bush has talked himself into a corner on Kyoto, but it is one that he can talk himself out of. The crucial period will be this time next year, when the G8 leaders will have to concentrate their minds on what they are to say about climate change when they travel to Johannesburg for the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit.

In the meantime, what matters most in Genoa is that seven of the eight do not blink. As Winston Churchill once remarked about the US, it tends to do what is right, but only after it has explored all possible alternatives.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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