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Opinion: A Good Beginning, But That's All

On Feb. 16, the Kyoto Protocol, the international environment accord on global warming, comes into force. It's a landmark in climate protection, but governments can't afford to rest on their laurels.

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Will Kyoto put a stop to this?

Festivities around the globe from Canada to Germany to Japan will mark the coming into force of the Kyoto Protocol. And rightfully so. After all Feb. 16 is a landmark in global environment and climate protection.

On the one hand, several industrial nations have committed themselves to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases by five percent from 1990 levels by 2012. On the other -- and that's the greater achievement -- the treaty will engage market economic instruments in climate protection.

The worldwide trade in emissions foreseen in the Kyoto treaty will ensure that pollution has a price. In addition, the possibility to cut emissions by supporting projects in the developing world will also allow the reduction of carbon dioxide in those places where it's the cheapest from an economic point of view.

The potential dynamics that market economic forces can unleash here is already apparent in the Europe-wide emissions trading scheme that the EU kick started at the beginning of this year.

Here, companies who emit more greenhouse gases into the air than allowed, must buy emission rights from other companies. In contrast, companies that save more than laid down in the treaty, can sell their surplus rights and thus make money.

Protocol just a first step

But despite all the justified glee over the coming into force of Kyoto and the end of years of nail biting negotiations, the protocol remains just a first step on the way to real climate protection.

In principle, the rise in temperatures can no longer be stopped -- it's already in full progress. In addition, people have in the past 200 years already emitted too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But many scientists are hoping that we will succeed in limiting worldwide increases in temperature to two degrees Celsius.

That's already too warm for fragile ecosystems like several coral reefs or for deep sea island states such as the Maldives, Tuvalu or the Cook Islands. But if temperature rises are limited to a maximum two degrees, then we could most likely avoid extreme damage such as the melting of polar caps or the reversal of the Gulf Stream. But, for that to happen, mankind must halve its emissions by mid century.

In the face of this necessary 50 percent reduction, the five-percent target of the Kyoto Protocol can only be a small beginning. Especially so, when you consider that many countries haven't abided by Kyoto even once until now. For instance, in Spain, Portugal and Ireland, emissions have soared by 30 to 40 percent.

Urgent challenges to be met

If the Kyoto Protocol has to move away from being just a beginning, then urgent challenges have to be met in its second phase starting 2012.

Firstly, the largest climate pollutant in the world, the United States, has to be pulled on board. The Americans are responsible for a third of all worldwide emissions. Those who like Bush's government ignore climate change are guilty of acting irresponsibly. Secondly, even developing countries such as China, India or Brazil must in future be urged to commit themselves to the reduction of emissions. Emissions per head in those countries may be significantly lower than in the North, but in the long run there can be no effective climate protection without the countries in the South.

Thirdly and lastly, international ship and air traffic that has been totally excluded thus far from Kyoto, must be bound by the treaty. Otherwise, emissions from increasing air traffic alone threaten to bring to naught Kyoto's five-percent emission reduction.

It would be good if the governments of this world didn't celebrate too long on Feb. 16 and instead prepared to take the next steps on the long way to climate protection as soon as possible.

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