Category Archives: Kyoto

Bali: so what?


(“A Pathway to Heaven.” Credit: Flickr/^riza^)

The redoubtable Olive Heffernan of Climate Feedback agonizes, like many, over whether the participants at the Bali climate-change conference achieved consensus at the expense of effectiveness. It’s difficult to glean from most general-audience news reports, but the nature of the talks’ result is that every country in the world formally agrees that the climate-change problem is very bad and we need to do something, but we’ll only say what (a cut of developed countries’ greenhouse-gas emissions of 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels) very, very quietly. In a footnote to the preamble of the final agreement, to be precise, making general reference to the latest series of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, which reached that conclusion.

Wrangling over just how loudly the countries of the world will state those targets can be expected to occupy most of the next two years’ worth of climate talks.

These meetings seem to end up in one of a handful of ways. They can reach consensus on meaningless things (Bali), reach consensus on meaningful things many will ignore (Kyoto), or achieve basically nothing at all (Montreal). Because envirocrats hail each one as a historic/landmark/watershed/breakthrough event, they give the illusion of progress — and then when the breakthroughs fail to yield detectable policy changes (the U.S. is already backtracking on the meaningless commitment it made just days ago), green-skeptics get to say it’s all a scam ginned up for the benefit of the negotiators.

Consider Lorne Gunter:

Every year, these same signatories meet. Every year, they go over (and over) the same territory. Every year, they dicker, blather, preach, assail, negotiate, draft and redraft (not to mention flying from one exotic location to another eating, drinking and living off fat publicly funded expense accounts). And every year, they leave claiming to have reached an historic consensus to save the UN climate change process.

The “historic” Bali agreement is no agreement at all. Rather, it is a compromise on a promise to negotiate an actual deal within the next two years. It contains no emissions quotas on any countries, developed or developing.

I hardly agree with Gunter on anything, but he’s not wrong. He’s taking an exceptionally hard line, it’s true, asking a lot of fabulously complex and difficult negotiations among dozens of parties with conflicting agendas. Progress in these things is made in millimetres, and to condemn the UN process for not serving up kilometres of improvements with every session is not entirely fair.

But seriously — what good does this all do? The IPCC and its science are certainly useful, but what positive effect has the Kyoto Protocol had aside from being a supernova-sized distraction?

I say screw it. We should stop going. Stop sending words to do the work of deeds. Instead, let’s recognize that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions makes sense not only on its own account, but because it means economic improvements (in the name of efficiency) and more tangible environmental improvements at the same time. Less spewing means less wasting means more money in our pockets. We can even find ways to support investments in efficiencies abroad without having to necessarily play by the Kyoto Accord’s Clean Development Mechanism.

Do not take this as an endorsement of the Harper government’s foolishness, by the way. Canada’s Environment Minister John Baird obviously went to Bali to be a spoiler and he mostly failed and was embarrassed and that’s good. I do believe he didn’t even want to send words, let alone deeds; in the case of Canada’s current government, having to cough up some words was progress.

But for serious people, attending meetings is not a substitute for getting on with the job. That’s all.

Canada’s strategy becomes apparent

The Globe has Geoffrey York on the ground at the Bali conference on The Protocol After The Kyoto One. He reports:

There are growing signs that the Harper government has formed an unofficial troika with Tokyo and Washington at the negotiations. Using similar language in their statements, the three countries seem to have co-ordinated their message, stressing that economic growth is just as valuable as the environment.

Argh. In the long term, they’re the same thing. The environment isn’t a nice thing to have, like an art gallery or a good baseball team. It’s a necessity, like a functioning marketplace with enforceable contracts. There’s a deep divide between those of conservative cast who get this and those who don’t.

…Canada said there must be a “balance” between the environment and “economic prosperity.”

There were other similarities, too. While they talked vaguely about long-term goals for the next 50 years, none of the troika made any mention of short-term targets for an agreement to replace Kyoto when it expires in 2012. None mentioned anything about binding commitments or mandatory targets for reducing greenhouse gases by 2020…

So all the talk of getting everybody, including China, India and the U.S., to sign onto meaningful targets was, in fact, just talk. York finds that China is ticked off at Canada‘s recalcitrance.

In its opening submission, Bejing called on developing countries to “contribute more to undertake commitments of policies and measures” to address climate change. It was the first time China had ever used the word “commitments” in any climate-change negotiation, analysts said.

I could scream.

Turns out Kyoto targets vary rather a lot

The only value in Australia’s signing onto the Kyoto Accord a month before it comes into effect is symbolic, but not for the obvious reason.

For Canada or the United States, the problem with signing onto the accord (or abruptly beginning to take it seriously) is that both countries would be theoretically committed to major emissions reductions neither would have any hope, at this incredibly late date, of achieving.

For Australia, it’s different.

According to its environment department’s Greenhouse Office, Australia’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2005 are only 2.2 per cent above what they were in the benchmark year of 1990. (That includes a hefty bonus from changes in land use, so it’s more a benefit of a kind of offsetting than from having found some way to control energy use and factory spewage.) But Australia, rather cleverly, agreed not to reduce its emissions below that level, but merely to contain them to an eight-per-cent increase.

The penalty … not so bad, according to The Australian:

Under the treaty, the nation has a target of restricting greenhouse gas emissions to 108 per cent of 1990 levels during the 2008-12 commitment period.

While the former Coalition Government insisted it was on track to meet that goal, [new Prime Minister Kevin] Rudd is less confident.

“We are currently likely to … overshoot our Kyoto target by one per cent,” he told ABC Radio.

The Prime Minister said the penalty would be set out under the post-Kyoto deal that kicks in after 2012.

It would include a commitment to a further reduction – 60 million tonnes – in carbon emissions plus a 30 per cent penalty added to the subsequent commitment target.

Regardless of the target, a nine-per-cent increase in emissions, using 1990, as a benchmark, would be a pretty enviable record for most industrial countries (the U.K. is a notable exception). Apparently signing and ratifying the treaty brought no particular magic with it.

Rewriting history

I’m not sure what to make of this story by the Canadian Press’s generally solid Alexander Panetta on goings-on at the Commonwealth summit in Uganda, so laden is it with misstatements that favour Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s post-Kyoto rhetorical position. Consider:

Harper said the key error of Kyoto was slapping binding targets on three-dozen countries but not the rest, including some of the world’s biggest polluters like the United States, China and India.


China, India, and the United States, none of whom are bound by Kyoto, account for more than half of global emissions alone.

Harper says they must all be brought on side in a global system that includes binding targets for everyone.

Um. I guess they’re all attributed to Harper in one way or another, and researching clarifications on the spot in Kampala can’t be easy.  (Speaking of which, let me be clear about my own view that Kyoto clearly didn’t work, for reasons more complex than the prime minister seems to be letting on.) But to suggest that Kyoto didn’t include binding targets for some of the world’s biggest polluters is just bull.

First of all, it did include binding targets for the U.S., but that country neglected to ratify the treaty, basically reneging on the deal it negotiated for itself. The treaty came into force regardless, when nearly all the other signatory countries ratified it, but the United States never acted accordingly. This is many things, but not an intrinsic flaw in the Kyoto treaty.

Second, while it didn’t include significant greenhouse-gas targets for China and India and other developing countries, that only became a problem because nobody foresaw just how fast their economies would industrialize and expand. Not taking into account an oracular knowledge of the future is a risk in any agreement. It did happen to be particularly important in an agreement on greenhouse gases, but if Harper is saying that any future treaty will have to predict the future perfectly or else he’s not going in on it, we’re going to be at this a very, very long time.

Kyoto proved to be an inadequate deal, but if we’re not going to repeat the mistakes, we need to be clear on what those mistakes actually were.

Emitting businesses get out ahead of Canada’s government

Canada’s big greenhouse-gas emitters, as represented by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, are calling for longer-term, more rigid regulation of the country’s emissions. From their “declaration” (PDF):

Canadians have wasted valuable time in a prolonged debate about a national target for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that, whatever its original appeal, is no longer realistic or achievable.  This should not excuse us from moving forward today with conviction.

We should be guided not by short-term political expediency but rather what is in Canada’s long-term interest in improving both our environmental and economic performance.  We must get a start now, but we should be clear about the timeframe necessary to accomplish the transition to a clean and low-carbon economy.  Energy-intensive industries have long planning horizons for large capital investments.  They need a stable and predictable policy regime that provides long-term guidance and does not disadvantage investments already made.

The task force that put this together includes companies like Imperial Oil and Suncor and Petro-Canada. Serious emitters with serious money on the table.

Between the lines, they’re saying that the Harper government’s intensity-based targets, which are only spelled out in detail for the next 10 years or so — and aren’t actually in place, being subject to yet-unscheduled public consultations and refinement over a period of many months, if and only if a snap election doesn’t intervene — don’t provide enough certainty to make business do anything. They even call for a carbon tax or a well-designed cap-and-trade system, though they don’t take a firm position on which they prefer.

Change is inevitable, according to the big-business lobby group; they want to get on with it.

Bush’s fifth stage of denial


It turns out the familiar list of arguments against doing anything about climate change …

  1. It’s not happening;
  2. It’s happening but it’s not our fault;
  3. It’s happening and it is our fault but there’s nothing we can do about it;
  4. It’s happening and it is our fault and there are things we can do about it but we shouldn’t;

Has a fifth entry:

  • It is happening and it is our fault and we can do something about it and we should do something about it, but not very much.

I’ve been generous to President George W. Bush on the climate file lately, noting how far he’d come in at least acknowledging that the world has a problem we should do something about, and recognizing the reality that any “solution” that doesn’t include India and China, among other nations exempted from significant action by the Kyoto Protocol, isn’t likely to do much other than shift more economic power to them while having negligible effect on greenhouse-gas emissions.

But I can’t read the president’s performance at the U.S.-called climate-change meeting this week as anything other than what the hard-core environmentalists say it was: a sophisticated effort to hijack climate-change talks in advance of the next round of post-Kyoto negotiations.

This excerpt from his speech on Friday is typical:

No one country has all the answers, including mine. The best way to tackle this problem is to think creatively and to learn from other’s experiences and to come together on a way to achieve the objectives we share. Together, our nations will pave the way for a new international approach on greenhouse gas emissions.

This new approach must involve all the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions, including developed and developing nations. We will set a long-term goal for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. By setting this goal, we acknowledge there is a problem. And by setting this goal, we commit ourselves to doing something about it.

By next summer, we will convene a meeting of heads of state to finalize the goal and other elements of this approach, including a strong and transparent system for measuring our progress toward meeting the goal we set. This will require concerted effort by all our nations. Only by doing the necessary work this year will it be possible to reach a global consensus at the U.N. in 2009.

Each nation will design its own separate strategies for making progress toward achieving this long-term goal. These strategies will reflect each country’s different energy resources, different stages of development, and different economic needs.

All of which is fine and, as far as it goes, sensible policy. It makes no sense for the UN, or whoever, to dictate exactly what each country must do to cut its emissions. But then, the UN has never done so and likely never would — even under Kyoto, it’s always been up to individual countries to choose their own policies. The only requirement was that those policies get them to whatever emissions targets they signed up for.

But the Bush the administration opposes mandatory targets. Which means it opposes, in practice, any action at all.

I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea that each nation needs to find its own solutions, and to Bush’s stated position that “a variety of market mechanisms [can] create incentives for companies and consumers to invest in new low-emission energy sources.” Markets require scarcity to work, though — a scarcity of money and labour and resources are what drive companies and individuals to be more efficient, so as to maximize the resources they have access to.

In the case of averting the worst of climate change, what needs to be scarce is the right to emit. Somehow, that has to be limited, and that requires governments that treat emissions targets as if they’re “hard,” with punishments for not meeting them. Bush is arguing that no scarcity is necessary, and that market mechanisms will work anyway.

Won’t work. Can’t work. Waste of time.

Kyoto scuffling continues, as if it mattered

I cannot, on this Saturday morning, find online the report the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy reportedly released yesterday saying the federal Conservatives are thisclose to lying about cutting Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions drastically over the next 20 to 50 years.

Apparently it came out late Friday, with the government using a technique journalists call “taking out the trash.”

The NRTEE isn’t displaying it. Environment Canada, the relevant ministry, doesn’t seem to have it. There’s no news release about it. The Globe and Mail quotes from the report, but Googling a distinctive passage turns up no original.

All of which means that I’m still in the dark about whether the report says anything significant or not. Consider the opening paragraphs of the Toronto Star‘s story:

The federal government’s latest climate change plan is badly flawed and won’t help Canada to hit its international climate change targets, its own advisory group says.

All nine programs in the plan, unveiled last month after Parliament passed a law that ordered the government to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, won’t do the job, the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy said yesterday.

“With respect to the realization of Canada’s Kyoto commitments, we conclude that the plan … will likely not allow Canada to meet those commitments,” the report states.

But then, it wasn’t supposed to. The targets described in the Tory climate-change plan (a 20-per-cent cut below 2006 emissions levels by 2020) were different from the Kyoto Accord’s targets (six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008, in essence).

Put more simply, the Tories’ stated target is to reduce Canada’s emissions to about 600 megatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2020, while the Kyoto target is 500 megatonnes by 2008. They’re very different objectives.
Meeting the Kyoto targets — which begin to apply three months from now — became impossible without massive economic damage sometime around the year 2000, thanks to Liberal governments’ inaction, and now are simply impossible no matter how much dislocation we were willing to accept. There’s no time anymore for adaptation and research and technology deployment. We’d just have to send the army to shut down big factories, and the troops probably wouldn’t do it.

How about this quote, from the Globe‘s version:

Environmentalist Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, said the report should force the government to change its message on climate change.

“It is a scathing review of all the measures that the government has put forward under its plan,” she said. “After two years, they can no longer blame the Liberals for inaction, because here’s their own plan, and it’s not going to work.”

Not going to work to do what? Meet Kyoto targets? No surprise, and to keep beating the Tories with that stick means that you inhabit a fairyworld where it’s unreasonable for the Conservatives to do the impossible.

But if the Tories’ plan isn’t going to work even on its own terms … Well, then you have something.

To look at the Conservatives’ plan, as it was released back in April, I was and am skeptical of it even on its own terms. The major problem is that there’s no discipline mechanism in the plan: if the country is missing the milestones along the way in a plan that extends conceptually to 2050, there’s no punishment, no system for tightening up the control regime. Emissions credits cost what they cost, which is not much, and if emitters are content to pay for them, the emitters can keep emitting. End of plan. It struck me that it was as though I’d said my target was to be a millionaire by 2020, and I was going to achieve that by saving $20 a month.

But the NRTEE report, as described in the press, actually seems more optimistic. The Globe:

The report’s focus is limited under the law to Conservative measures in place for the 2008-2012 period. It supports the government’s stand that while the Kyoto targets will not be met, emissions will start to go down in 2010.

Gary Keller, a spokesman for Environment Minister John Baird, said that is the more important finding. He said the report does not give a full picture of the Conservative plan because it is limited to the Kyoto dates.

… and that limitation is thanks to the Liberals and their MP Pablo Rodriguez, who wrote the bill forcing the NRTEE to report on the government’s climate-change plan as though we lived in the fairyworld where the Kyoto targets are achievable.

If I can find the blasted report itself, I’ll take this up again.