Qualifying Kyoto: A Warming Climate and a Heated Debate

By Hathaway-Zepeda, Taylor | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Qualifying Kyoto: A Warming Climate and a Heated Debate


Hathaway-Zepeda, Taylor, Harvard International Review


Earth is warming, but the international community is getting colder. Political heat is scorching and countries are baring their cold shoulders. As pressure rises and fissures widen, the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed at significantly reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is melting away by the minute.

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In December 1997, 160 countries from around the world met in Kyoto, Japan, to commence negotiations on the impending issue of global climate change. The result was the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that has still not gone into effect and is mired in the extensive process of intense political debate. The Kyoto Protocol calls for signatory countries to revert to 1990 GHG emissions levels by 2012, and requires that 55 or more countries that collectively represent at least 55 percent of global GHG emissions sign the treaty before it can be legally effective. Although there is an international consensus that climate change is occurring and needs to be addressed, the question of how to effectively address it still remains unsettled.

A Change in Political Climate

Despite years of deliberative US efforts in the formation of the Kyoto Protocol, US President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the protocol shortly after taking office. Bush's withdrawal came as a complete surprise to the international community, especially because it was an unexpected unilateral move on the part of the United States. The United States, as the world's largest gas emitter, had neither consulted with nor announced to participating countries that it would remove itself from the treaty. Rather, the withdrawal was announced domestically by the US media, and was later spread to the international community.

Consequently, the United States took on a slew of political heat from both domestic and international sources. The global media publicly denounced the United States as an anti-environmentalist and unilateralist entity. Non-governmental organizations and environmental activists launched a widespread campaign criticizing the Bush decision and urging US businesses to continue fighting global climate change. The European Union was particularly wounded by Bush's withdrawal, and felt that it needed to swiftly reemphasize the significance of Kyoto by encouraging more participation. Accordingly, it was quick to reverse its original stance by making an astonishing and unfortunate number of concessions to other countries. One major concession was an increased recognition of the environmental significance of forest carbon sinks, large areas of forestland that absorb and store atmospheric C[O.sub.2]. As it claimed that it was currently using forest sinks, Russia was granted lower emission targets and increased flexibility in the framework for meeting its environmental goals. This concession was particularly self-defeating for the European Union because it set a dangerous precedent for similar demands from China and India.

Although Bush's withdrawal was tactless, his reasons for dropping the protocol were well-founded. Bush cited worries that the costs of the Kyoto Protocol were likely to outweigh any of the uncertain benefits the world might reap. He expressed the concern that reducing emissions output could endanger jobs and hurt domestic revenue. He also emphasized the criticism that the Protocol does not require action from developing nations like China, whose emissions rates are growing exponentially and will soon surpass even that of the United States.

In recent months, Russia has begun a similar reassessment of its commitment to the protocol. Currently, the countries that have ratified only constitute 44 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, and Russia's 17 percent is crucial to achieving the minimum requirement of 55 percent. However, during the October 2003 UN World Climate Change Conference in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his scientific advisors publicly expressed doubt about the benefits of the Kyoto Protocol, and Putin even went so far as to imply that global climate change might be good for Russia.

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