Thirteen years after the Rio Earth Summit and more than seven years after the deal was struck, the Kyoto Protocol finally came into force in February. A legally binding agreement, Kyoto represents the first concrete international effort to address global warming.
But don't start looking for that perfect beach house in Kiribati just yet. While it is an important achievement, Kyoto is not the answer to our global warming woes.
In all, 141 countries have ratified the protocol, but with the US and Australia sitting on the sidelines and major polluting developing countries such as China and India not covered by the agreement, the signatories account for only 62 per cent of 1990 global carbon emissions.
Moreover, to ensure the agreement would get sufficient signatories, the rules have been so diluted that Kyoto will have an almost negligible impact on global warming. And that's only if all signatories are able to comply. Already there are indications that some countries will struggle to meet their targets within the narrow compliance period.
Here then is the problem with Kyoto: it relies on short-term emission reduction targets for just 34 industrialised countries, imposing high costs and jeopardising compliance while generating only trivial climate benefits. It fails to provide for the participation of developing countries and eschews a sustainable long-term solution.
Champions of Kyoto have tended to dismiss such criticisms as missing the forest for the trees. But the trees are important, metaphorically and literally. Kyoto's flaws help to explain why it has taken so long to come into force and why it is so weak. If the world is serious about tackling one of the central challenges of our time, then it must frankly recognise the problems with the agreement.
But critique alone is not enough. The Prime Minister, John Howard, and his various environment ministers have been quick to criticise Kyoto, but slow to engage constructively with the issues. It is not enough to say that Australia is on track to meet its Kyoto target. Australia's negotiated target is significantly lower than the industrialised country average, yet it is the largest per capita producer of greenhouse gases in the developed world.
More important, global problems demand global solutions. Global warming will affect everyone, but it will have a particularly nasty impact on countries such as Australia. It is in our national interest to help develop an international agreement that will effectively and efficiently address climate change.
This year would be a good year for the Howard Government to try a different approach. The agreement covers only 2008 to 2012, so discussions will soon begin about the framework for post-2012.
There is also likely to be some political momentum around global warming this year. In addition to Kyoto coming into force, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has pledged his chairmanship of the Group of Eight industrialised nations and presidency of the EU to addressing this critical issue.
If Australia is to help build a better post-2012 agreement, three factors should be at the core.
First, all countries must be able to participate in concerted action after 2012. Developing countries are expected to account for more than half the global emissions by 2020, so it is crucial to find an equitable way of including them in the plan.
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