Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 14 February 2005

Race on to tackle climate change

This week the Kyoto Protocol comes into force, marking a new step in international efforts to deal with climate change, which more and more people believe to be the world’s most serious problem.  It is thus a good time to review the key issues and the targets to be set if climate change is to be tackled.

This week marks an important milestone in international affairs, and especially for the global environment. 

For on 16 February, the Kyoto Protocol comes into force.  It is the first international treaty that binds countries to commitments to limit and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide and other “Greenhouse gases” that are pumped into the atmosphere.

As is now well known, the increase of these gases is inducing the world’s climate to change, with disastrous effects.  In fact, many scientists and political leaders now believe that climate change is one of the most critical problems facing the world, and even the single most important.

There’s good reason for that.  If present trends continue, on a “business as usual” basis, the average global temperature will increase and cause the sea water level to rise, as the ocean expands, and as the massive ice sheets over Greenland and the Antarctica melts.

The rising sea water will flood large parts of many countries.  Agriculture will be disrupted, marine life and biodiversity will be affected, and so too will human health.

And the situation is expected to worsen.  Even if action is taken today, it will take many decades or even centuries before the temperature can stabilize. Yet the actions so far are “too little, too late.”

The coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol thus provides a little ray of hope that cuts into the gloom.  The protocol, established in 1997 under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, took eight years to come into force because for that to happen, industrialized countries responsible for 55% of these countries’ total Greenhouse gas emissions had to ratify the protocol. 

A crisis developed when the United States, which is responsible for 36% of the industrialized countries’ greenhouse gases, pulled out of the protocol altogether.  

Fortunately, Russia ratified the protocol last November, bringing the share of emissions from industrialized countries that have ratified to 61%, and three months later, the Kyoto Protocol comes into force.

Thus, the rest of the world is agreeing to move ahead with actions to combat climate change around a common framework, even if the US, the world’s largest emitter of Greenhouse gases, is unwilling to do so. Australia has also decided not to ratify.

Under the protocol’s terms, the industrialized countries have taken binding commitments to cut their emissions by a certain date (up to 2012) and by a certain percentage from their 1990 levels. The targets vary for different countries, as several countries pleaded at a 2001 meeting that they are special cases.    

It was agreed at Kyoto that the developing countries do not need to commit to cut their emissions, in recognition of the fact that it is the developed nations that have been mainly responsible since the industrial revolution for the gas emissions since that have brought on the climate crisis.

Moreover, it was recognized that the developing countries have low per capita emission levels compared to the developed countries, and that they have the right to some “space” to increase their emissions as they develop their economies. 

The US cited this “exemption” for developing countries as a major reason for not wanting to join the protocol.  Also, other developed countries are now pressing for developing countries (or at least some of them) to also commit to emission reduction in the near future.  

So far the developing countries have not agreed to do so, arguing that the industrialized nations have themselves not yet lived up to their Kyoto commitments, and thus the poorer countries should not yet be asked to make binding commitments.

Indeed, not only have many countries not yet reduced their emissions in line with their commitments, but their emissions have actually increased above their 1990 levels.  For example, the United Kingdom agreed to a 12.5% reduction, but its carbon dioxide emissions have grown.  And according to one estimate, carbon emissions in the US have risen by 12% compared to 1990 levels and is predicted to rise to 30% above the 1990 levels by 2012.      

The scenario on climate change revolves around a number of key relationships and figures.  

Firstly, emissions of the Greenhouse gases have grown tremendously due to the burning of fossil fuels, resulting mainly from industrial activities and motor transportation. 

Secondly, this has led to a build up of the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere.  In April 2004, the carbon dioxide concentration was 379 parts per million (ppm), compared to the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.

Thirdly, the carbon dioxide build up is made worse by the increasing loss of forests, which act as “carbon sinks” that absorb the gas and prevent its release in the atmosphere.

Fourthly, the increase of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere enhances the “Greenhouse Effect” (in which more heat is generated), thus leading to temperatures rising.  Based on data  from the UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change, it is estimated that the mean global surface temperature has increased by about 0.3 to 0.6 degree Celsius since the late 19th century to now, and an increase of 0.2 to 0.3 degree over the last 40 years. 

And fifthly, a significant rise in temperature can trigger several events, such as melting of the ice sheets, the death of some significant marine life and other biodiversity, and effects on agriculture and human health.

Scientists and policy makers are now busy trying to understand these relationships more precisely, and to set targets for what needs to be done. This target setting is proceeding along the following lines.

Firstly, a figure is set as to the rate of temperature increase the world can take, beyond which a disastrous chain of events will be triggered.

A report of the International Climate Change Task Force (set up by three policy think tanks in the UK, US and Australia, and of which I am a member) has recommended that a long-term objective be established to prevent global average temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level (in the year 1750), to limit the extent and magnitude of climate change impacts.

According to the report, beyond the 2 degrees level, the risks to human societies and ecosystems grow significantly.  Average temperature increases larger than this will entail substantial agricultural losses, greatly increased numbers of people at risk of water shortages, and widespread adverse health impacts.

Exceeding this  could also imperil a very high proportion of the world’s coral reefs and cause irreversible damage to ecosystems including the Amazon rainforest. 

Abobe the 2 degree level, the risks of abrupt, accelerated or runaway climate change also increase.  The possibilities include reaching tipping points leading to the loss of West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets (which could raise sea levels more than ten meters over a few centuries), the shutdown of the thermohaline ocean circulation (and with it, the Gulf Stream), and the transformation of the planet’s forests and soils from a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon.

Secondly, a figure is set for the maximum permissible level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The task force report says that the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere should not exceed 400 ppm, which is the level associated with limiting the increase in global average temperature to 2 degrees.

Thirdly, since the carbon dioxide concentration (which was 379 ppm in March 2004) is likely to rise above 400 ppm in coming decades (and far higher in a business-as-usual scenario), action is urgently needed to reduce emissions of all greenhouse gases, as to protect and expand the capacity of forests and soils to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  

The figures will have to be worked out, as to how much gas emission reduction is required overall to bring the carbon dioxide level down at least to 400 ppm in the future.

From that overall figure, it has then to be determined and discussed what are the maximum levels of emissions each country (or category of countries) is permitted to have, and the rates of emission reductions that each country has to achieve, within a specific time frame.

The exercise will be complicated further by the question of whether to continue with the principle that only developed countries be required to make binding commitments.  If so, how should those developed countries that refuse to join the Kyoto Protocol be treated?

And if the developing countries are to be drawn in, shouldn’t it be on a non-binding basis, at least until the developed countries show some results?  If they are to be drawn into commitments (binding or voluntary) eventually, it should be on the basis of respect for equity, for example, that each person is entitled to a certain level of emission.

How can this key principle be factored in, when the calculations are made, on how much more the world can take, and how fast countries should reduce their emissions, if we are to avoid a climate-change catastrophe?