Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 21 February 2005


It was the best environmental event for years, when the Kyoto protocol to counter global warming came into force last week.  But there was also reminders from prominent UN leaders and scientists that the treaty only deals with the tip of a giant iceberg and much more needs to be done.

Two separate but related news items last week captured the importance of the environment and especially of the effects of climate and nature on the world.

They are about the coming into force of the Kyoto treaty on climate change and the loss suffered by Asian fishing communities due to the tsunami.

On 16 February, environmentalists and policy makers celebrated the best ecological event in recent times -- the coming into force of the Kyoto protocol on global warming.

According to the protocol, which is under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), industrialized countries are to reduce their combined emissions of six major greenhouse gases during the five-year period from 2008 to 2012 to below1990 levels. So far 128 Member States have ratified the treaty.

For example, the European Union and Japan are obliged to cut their emissions by 8%  and 6% respectively.  Achieving the Kyoto targets will require some technological or lifestyle changes enabling the reduction of pollution caused by industries and motor vehicles.

Top United Nations officials used the occasion to urge more action.  The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on world leaders to place even more limits on greenhouse gases. "By itself, the Protocol will not save humanity from the dangers of climate change," he said in a video message to a celebratory ceremony in Kyoto, where it was negotiated in 1997.

"So let us celebrate today, but let us not be complacent. I call on the world community to be bold, to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol, and to act quickly in taking the next steps. There is no time to lose.”

The biggest drawback to the protocol was the withdrawal in 2001 of the United States, by far the world’s biggest emitter of “greenhouse gases”, from the protocol. 

This caused the protocol members to have a crisis of identity of sorts.  But the other states recovered, renewed their commitment and have forged ahead with plans to implement the treaty, without US involvement.

For the protocol to come into force, 55 Parties to the UNFCCC must ratify it, including the developed countries whose combined 1990 emissions of carbon dioxide exceed 55 per cent of that group's total. Russia, with 17 per cent, took the official step in November, pushing the amount beyond the threshold, enabling the protocol to enter into force.

Last Wednesday, the UN Environment Programme chief, Klaus Topfer, countered the claim that the Protocol "is more dead than alive" without the United States, which accounts for about 24 per cent of global fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions.

"While the US Government has decided against the Kyoto treaty, many individual states in America are adopting or planning to adopt greenhouse gas reductions in line with the spirit of the Protocol," he said. 

But he also called for more action.  "We must act swift and sure to go beyond Kyoto," he said. "We must put the planet on course for the up to 60 per cent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to conserve the climate."

Mr. Toepfer drew a "terrifying" picture of the impact of global warming drawn from recent reports, "a vision of a planet spinning out of control."  He noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body set up by the UN, concluded that global temperatures may rise by as much as 5.8 degrees centigrade by 2100 without action.

Another report, launched a few weeks ago by the International Climate Change Task Force, argues that even a two degree rise could take the planet past a point of "no return," he said, adding that “many of the past theoretical forecasts are sadly coming to pass."

The effects of climate change and sea level rise were also highlighted by Anwarul Chowdhury, the UN High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States.

"Never before has the negative impact of climate change been more evident than the recent devastating weather conditions resulting in widespread hurricanes, cyclones, tropical storms, tidal waves, tsunamis in various parts of the world, particularly affecting small island developing states. These small countries are the most vulnerable to global climate change," he said.

It would appear that at this historic point, when the Kyoto protocol came into force, there is an emerging consensus that the world should adopt the following targets: 

  • To keep the rise in average global temperature to a maximum of 2 degrees centigrade.
  • This would mean limiting the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a maximum of 400 parts per million.
  • To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 60% below the present levels, in order to achieve the above two targets.

It is obvious from the above that the current Kyoto protocol is not enough, as it only obliges the developed country members to cut their gas emissions by 2012 to around 5 to 10 per cent below their 1990 levels.

Even to meet these inadequate target will be a hard task.  Meanwhile, negotiations under the protocol will intensify on new commitments for countries beyond 2012. 

Whether to accept new global targets required to seriously deal with the problem, such as cutting global emissions by 60%, and how to divide the responsibilities and obligations among countries, will probably constitute the most important and difficult set of international negotiations of the next several years.

The devastating effect that changes in natural conditions can have was brought home again last week with the release of new data on the loss to fisheries resources resulting from the recent Sumatra earthquake and its associated tsunami.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), there were losses of US$520 million suffered by the fishing sector of the seven worst-affected countries, with over 111,000 vessels destroyed or damaged, 36,000 engines lost and 1.7 million units of fishing gear ruined.      

The FAO has a strategy to rehabilitate fisheries and aquaculture along the lines of “sustainable and responsible fishing in the region” as the sector gets back on its feet.      

"We should not recreate one of the major problems within fisheries prior to the tsunami: over-capacity in the coastal fisheries," FAO Fishery Technology Service head Jeremy Turner said today. "To simplify, that means too many boats, too much fishing effort. We must ensure that we do not surpass the level of fishing capacity that was there before the disaster."      

The cause of the tsunami was not linked to climate change.  It was due to a natural phenomenon, a gigantic earthquake in the seabed.

But the tsunami did give us an idea of the awful consequences that may arise if global warming were to continue without action on our part:  the rise in sea levels caused by the warming of the oceans and the melting of the icesheets can have devastating effects on communities in many countries with coastlines.