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The Kyoto Protocol - it's just 'so not there'

By Peter Vintila - posted Thursday, 13 September 2007

"PM to look beyond Kyoto." Can he really see that far? That’s the first question that occurred to me when I saw The Australian's headline story as it opened the bidding on the APEC week. The Australian Government has only a feeble grasp on the problems of climate change and its attempt to define a global or even a regional post-Kyoto agenda is little more than a joke. By Tuesday, the outspoken Malaysians were saying so.

The Kyoto Protocol is arguably the most important international treaty in human history. Its purpose is huge, yet it remains weak and irresolute. The world is staring catastrophic market failure in the face and attempting to rescue the most public of public goods we know - Earth. What has the Protocol so far offered? A stunted user-pays treaty relying almost exclusively on unworkable market instruments. It remains the pale child of neo-liberal parents who are not yet convinced that markets ever really fail.

So what do you do when the market fails? Only allow pretend markets in to fix it. The irony , and the limited horizons, are tragic.


Of course, that’s not what makes Howard, or Bush for that matter, feel the need to go “further”. On the contrary, they are convinced that Protocol has escaped proper neo-liberal jurisdiction and that it has not applied the user-pays principle hard enough.

Why hasn’t the UN insisted that huge developing countries like China and India pay their way and shoulder equal parts of the adjustment burden? And what’s the solution Howard peddled during APEC? Lower the price. “Let’s make the poor pay as much as the rich”, or is it, “Let’s allow the rich to pay as little as the poor”? Either way, aspirations and lip service are cheaper than firm targets.

Is anyone going to pay serious attention to this? It looks as though Howard has audience - the Chinese will talk to him, and outside of APEC; the Indians too. For all sorts of reasons, many developing country leaders would prefer to appear to be saying “yes” to aspirations rather than “no” to real demands. But history will at least record that they were motivated by more than greed.

We do well to remember here, that half the world’s two billion children live in conditions of extreme deprivation - lacking enough food, clean water, sanitation housing, basic health care and so the list, according to UNICEF, goes on. Imperfect though it may be in many ways, the third world development imperative is ultimately also driven by needs of this kind and, in China, the pressure to go fast, to cut corners, including carbon corners, is intense.

That’s the grim reality everywhere in the developing world - and, in tomorrow’s history books, their understandable errors will look far better than our own hesitation over power and petrol prices. Nor will this convenient alliance between desperate need and blind greed last. Yet Howard’s position may well be superior to that of the Labor Party. Rudd will sign up to a manifestly inadequate treaty that does nothing to effect developing world engagement - for breast beating purposes; for vanity’s sake.

So which is it to be? Greed or vanity? Some days, I think that greed may be the lesser sin, for the Howard position contains a kernel truth: A coal plant or more per week means that the developing world engagement is absolutely necessary. But it has to be real and fast engagement, not a user pays regime that gives everyone an aspirational holiday until the end of the Earth.


What are the realities here? Most people have heard that China has just over taken the US as the world’s largest emitter. But that’s just the start. According to the American Council for Capital Formation it will be emitting twice as much as the US by mid century and if the planet does not buckle in the mean time, eight times as much by 2100. At that point, aggregate global carbon emissions will have grown from a current 7 to 18Gt and the developing world as a whole will account for 85 per cent of it. By then, or even well before then, one or more of a number of runaway climate change triggers will have been pulled and Gaia’s plans for revenge will be well advanced.

The Kyoto Protocol, as my teenage son would say, is “so not there” and even the boldest EU pledges deal only with developed world emissions - likely to account for just 15 per cent of global emissions by 2100 on the above projections. So not there, so not there!

Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute has argued that the Kyoto Protocol is responding to the challenge of the developing world carbon tsunami: its “clean development mechanism”, essentially a larger scale sanctioned carbon offsetting arrangement, is doing the job. This is, indeed, the one small gesture the Kyoto Protocol has made to deal with developing world emission problems and it encourages corporate clean energy investment (where carbon savings are cheaper) in exchange for extended pollution rights at home.

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For a more detailed elaboration of the argument see Climate Change War or Climate Change Peace.

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About the Author

Peter Vintila is currently completing a book called Climate change war or climate change peace to be published early in 2010. An exploratory essay under the same title is available on his website.

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