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How far does the Kyoto Protocol get us?

By Chris Mitchell - posted Friday, 29 October 2004

I started my engagement with the climate change issue over 15 years ago. Since that time the largest change in the debate has not been in government or academia, but in the response of industry, particularly the large companies.

With Russian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol we are about to enter into a new international phase of activity to address climate change. The door is now open for carbon trading and this will serve to increase private sector engagement in the climate change issue. But the Protocol is, at best, a first step.

There is a growing consensus that there is a need for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from Australia. The Australian Climate Group as a first-cut has proposed a 60 per cent reduction on 1990 emissions by about 2050.


This was followed shortly thereafter by Dr Robin Batterham, Australia’s Chief Scientist, arguing similarly that deep cuts in Australia’s emissions would be required.

The Australian Climate Group’s thinking was not the result of detailed gazing into some kind of modelling crystal ball but derived from insight derived from some powerful well-established understandings that have emerged from the expert community over recent years.

The first was the understanding that the earth system will take decades, in some respects centuries, to return to a near-stable state even after emissions have been reduced and concentrations (that is the amounts) of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere have levelled out.

At the same time, large-scale industrial investments such as power stations, metal smelters and oil and gas developments represent long-term assets that effectively also embody a commitment to continued emissions. “Climate system inertia” and “technological lock-in” are in some senses the two horns of the climate change dilemma.

Second, there is strong evidence that global warming is not only well underway, but that impacts of that warming are starting to appear, even though the consequences of these impacts on human societies and development are still poorly understood.

In this respect, part of what alarms climatologists is that while a few degrees of global warming may not sound very much, it is. The difference between an ice age and pre-industrial temperatures might be as little as 4 degrees Celsius. Without the natural greenhouse effect planetary temperature would be too cold to sustain life. Below zero degrees all fresh water is frozen. The average temperature of the earth is currently about 15 degrees Celsius. It is within this context that climatologists argue that even a small change of a degree or two over the relatively short period of a century is dramatic.


Another consideration is that any pragmatic assessment needs to accept the nature of the development gap between the developed and developing world. It needs to recognise that some economies of large developing countries have already generated a substantial head of steam.

Irrespective of largely technical debates centring on whether the gap between rich or poor will narrow, and how this should be represented in scenarios of future emissions, there seems to be little doubt that greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries will continue to grow, at least over the next 30 years.

Current global greenhouse gas emissions are already environmentally unsustainable. Consequently if concentrations are to be stabilised the developed world will be required to reduce emissions more deeply than the developing world will need to moderate its emission aspirations.

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About the Author

Dr Chris Mitchell is a member of the Australian Climate Group and is the Chief Executive Officer of the CRC for Greenhouse Accounting. The views in this are article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Australian Climate Group or the CRC for Greenhouse Accounting.

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