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Climate Control After Kyoto

DW staff (ktz)December 6, 2004

With the Kyoto Protocol officially taking effect early next year, the 10th annual UN Climate Conference in Buenos Aires kicks off on a good note. But there is still much work ahead to cut the output of greenhouse gases.

Global warming is causing glaciers in Argentina to meltImage: AP

Invigorated by Russia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, environmentalists are convening in the Argentine capital from Dec. 6 to 17 to discuss the future of climate change. The treaty, which becomes legally binding in February 2005, opens the way for reining in human activities that are gradually contributing to a change in the Earth’s climate system.

Winter Schornsteine Rauch
Coal burning heaters increase emission levelsImage: AP

The framework, negotiated in 1997 and held in limbo until Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the protocol in November, is the world’s most ambitious and complex environmental accord. Ratified by 150 nations, it legally commits wealthy countries to trimming outputs of six greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), by at least 5.2 percent by 2012, compared with 1990 levels.

An impossible goal?

But given the fact that the overall level of emissions in the majority of wealthy countries has soared since the protocol was first drafted seven years ago in Kyoto, Japan, very few signatories will be able to meet the 2012 pledge.

Smog in Moskau
Smog is a result of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the airImage: AP

The 15 original European Union members, for instance, had agreed to an ambitious reduction plan to cut back their greenhouse gases by an average of eight percent by 2012 compared to their output in 1990. As of 2002, however, they had only managed to trim the emissions by 2.9 percent.

Limited impact

Despite all its diplomatic importance, the treaty will only have a minimal impact on improving the climate. The gases it regulates, products primarily of burning oil, gas and coal, can linger on in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, and are already heating up the planet.

Rapsfeld Industrielandschaft
Factories in GermanyImage: AP

Environmental scientists say that reduction levels of around 60 percent are urgently needed to avoid catastrophic damage to the world’s biosphere. But given the fact that the five-percent benchmark is already too high for many countries, a greater reduction seems illusory.

In addition, many of the world’s fastest growing economies, such as India and China, are currently not included in the first phase of the commitment period which runs until 2012. Yet these are also the countries which recorded a significant increase in emissions since the treaty was originally drawn up in 1997.

Berufsverkehr in Peking
Beijing is one of the world's most polluted citiesImage: AP

Only once the second commitment period enters force after 2012 will China and India, which together account for about 40 percent of global emissions, be required to begin curbing their pollutants. Unless they begin implementing drastic cuts, the two Asian powerhouses are expected to overtake all current industrialized nations in greenhouse gas output by 2025, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

American opposition

The United States, currently the world’s biggest polluter with an output of a quarter of all global CO2 emissions, has repeatedly refused to sign the treaty. In March 2001, in one of his first acts after taking office, President George W. Bush said his country, despite having signed the 1997 draft agreement, would not ratify the protocol.

Umweltschutz / USA
Protestors at a Greenpeace rally on Earth Day in Washington April 18, 2001.Image: AP

Bush said the cost of meeting Kyoto’s commitments would be too high for the US economy, calling the treaty "unfair" because only industrialized countries had to make targeted emissions cuts.

German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, a member of the Green party and a strong advocate of the Kyoto Protocol, criticized the United States for its refusal to cut emissions to a responsible level.

“It simply cannot be that a US citizen with the comparable living standard of a European citizen produces two and a half times as many greenhouse gases,” he said in an interview with a radio station in Berlin-Brandenburg on Monday.

With the world’s highest per capita emission rates, the US should feel morally obligated to cutting greenhouse gases and setting itself up as a responsible model for the world, Trittin said, adding that he did not expect Washington to sign the treaty as long as Bush is in the White House.