Global warming treaty goes cold

Blair and others might be casting doubt on the Kyoto Protocol, but the broader consensus on global warming goes unchallenged.

Rob Lyons

Topics Science & Tech

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Is the Kyoto treaty dead in the water? That was the suggestion underlying Tony Blair’s speech this week to a conference on climate change in London. But while Blair’s speech provided little encouragement for those demanding massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, there is little sign that the hysteria about global warming will subside any time soon.

If Blair is downbeat about Kyoto, he is only being realistic. The aim of the treaty was to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by relatively small amounts in the major industrialised nations by 2012. Developing countries, most notably China and India, were exempt in this first phase but the expectation was that any future emissions pact would include them, and involve much stiffer cuts in emissions.

However, when the USA refused to take part, the treaty became pretty pointless. Bill Clinton may have signed up for the treaty, but the US Senate did not, voting 95-0 against ratification. For all the Bush-bashing over global warming, it was always unlikely that Congress would have agreed to it.

As it happens, the treaty’s biggest supporter, the European Union, has been more supportive in word than deed. As BBC News noted in July, the EU ‘pledged to bring total greenhouse gas emissions to eight per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012, but by 2002 they had dropped only 2.9 per cent – and CO2 emissions had risen slightly. Only four EU countries are on track to achieve their own targets.’ (1) And the EU is economically stagnating. Any significant return to economic growth would surely end any prospect of meeting the targets.

Missing those targets will be expensive. A report in Ireland suggests that unless dramatic action is taken, the Irish government will have to pay as much as €120million per year to buy carbon allowances from other countries to meet its Kyoto obligations (2). Even though Ireland is booming by European standards, that’s quite a lot of money for a relatively small economy.

To top it off, even the most ardent environmentalist would concede that Kyoto would have no noticeable impact on climate change. The cuts envisaged are simply too small. The long-term target is for a cut of 60 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2050, but this seems highly unlikely unless there is a dramatic shift in the way we generate electricity and power our vehicles.

‘The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge’, said Blair in his London speech. ‘I think in the world after 2012 we need to find a better, more sensitive set of mechanisms to deal with this problem.’ (3) So while the Kyoto targets still apply, Blair is keeping his fingers crossed that some other deal can be put together which can supersede them.

This is welcome news. The rush to cut emissions was thoroughly irrational. Even if climate change does proceed in the way that the biggest doom-mongers suggest, the draconian cuts in emissions would have cost far more than mitigating the problems caused by a warming world – and hindered economic development in the process.

Two recent disasters illustrate the benefits of development. The USA has been hit by a particularly busy hurricane season. One of its major cities has been flooded and millions of people displaced. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been struck by a massive earthquake.

In the former, the city has already been pumped dry and the death toll is in the hundreds. In the latter, many sections of the country are still paralysed, hundreds of thousands are still without proper shelter, and the dead are counted in the tens of thousands. Yet environmentalists persist in believing that the best way to cope with the floods and droughts forecast to result from climate change is effectively to downgrade development as a priority in favour of ‘sustainability’.

The new emphasis encouraged by Bush and Blair will be on the development of new, low-emissions technologies and energy efficiency. This may well prove to be a diversionary gravy train in which huge sums are thrown at ideas that wouldn’t otherwise have been considered practical: why else are huge windfarms assaulting our coasts and hills? There is at least some prospect of positive material spin-offs in a way that was unlikely with the target-setting approach. If this new initiative encourages the development of nuclear power, a technology that raises the possibility of producing a lot more energy in the future, it will be a good thing.

However, none of this really challenges the consensus around climate change: that the production of certain waste gases associated with economic growth will ultimately screw up the planet – and that in the not-too-distant future, the planet will exact some kind of revenge on humans both for their hubris in trying to control nature and their greed in wanting ever-greater standards of living.

In this regard, the EU is rhetorically as gung-ho as ever. In part, this is because global warming, along with the war in Iraq, has been one of the best sticks with which to beat the USA. Europe might be an economic failure, but that won’t stop its leaders from trying to seize the moral high ground whenever possible.

While there is a shift going on in relation to the best method of dealing with climate change, there has been in many ways a closing of minds on the science. Now that Bush has less need to oppose emissions targets, he has sounded a less sceptical note on the science itself, stating on the eve of the G8 conference in July that ‘the surface of the Earth is warmer and that an increase in greenhouse gases is contributing to the problem’. If the politicians close ranks around the assumption that the world will get dramatically warmer in the future unless we change our ways, that may leave less room in public debate for those who are critical of the global warming orthodoxy.

If some realism is brought to bear on the subject of climate change, all the better. But the problems still remain: the basic science has been politicised to the point where sensible discussion of genuine uncertainty is impossible; the capacity of human society to cope with change, climate or otherwise, is still denigrated; and development is still assumed to be a luxury that should take a backseat in favour of the environment.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Global warming

(1) Climate change: The big emitters, BBC News, 4 July 2005

(2) Ireland facing €600m bill for failing to meet Kyoto greenhouse gas limits, Irish Examiner, 12 October 2005

(3) Speech to London G8 climate change conference, Number 10 website, 2 November 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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