Climate change: Figures show Kyoto Protocol was a success – or do they?

Two positive climate-change stories in a row is surely too good to be true, right? Just days after writing about the promising technology that shows CO2 can be turned to rock in just two years, here I am looking at a really positive press release. It says that the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was an unmitigated success, with every single one of the 36 countries that signed up reducing their mean annual greenhouse gas emissions from 2008-2012 by an average of 5% relative to the levels seen in 1990.

Climate change: Figures show Kyoto Protocol was a success – or do they?

The numbers have only just come in, and although overall global emissions rose, the 36 countries that signed and ratified Kyoto “surpassed their commitment” by 2.4 gigatonnes of CO2 per year.

This would be brilliant news, showing real hope that the ambitious targets set at the

COP21 Paris climate summit can be achieved through a combination of good will and international peer pressure. But if you look a little closer at the numbers, the 100% compliance rate isn’t quite as clear-cut as it first appears.

Caveats, caveats, caveats

First off, as the press release acknowledges, the original list of signatories was 38 countries. What happened to the other two? Well, Canada withdrew and the USA never ratified the agreement (the Senate voted for the Byrd-Hagel Resolution by 95-0, which bemoaned that the Kyoto Protocol “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States”). Unsurprisingly, both nations missed their goals.

Second, nine of the countries actually overshot their carbon emissions, but still complied using the “Flexible Mechanisms” built into the agreement. In other words, they bought the right to emit more CO2 from nations that weren’t using as much. To be fair, these countries (Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain and Switzerland) only just missed their goals, coming in at 1% over, but it’s still worth noting.kyoto_agreement_a_success

These points are both highlighted by the press release itself, but as New Scientist notes, there are other mitigating factors at play here. First, the former Soviet states had seen their carbon emissions dropping significantly before the deal was signed. “Discount that, and the 38 failed to meet their target,” they write.

Second, the period of 2008-2012 covered the biggest global economic recession since the 1930s. Carbon emissions were arguably one to two gigatonnes lower as a direct consequence of this.

Third, and possibly most damaging of all, this takes no account of “carbon leakage”, which is the exporting of countries emissions to developing countries. The protocol also doesn’t include aviation and shipping.

Still worth cheering?

With all this in mind, is the report worth celebrating at all? Yeah, I think so. Even with these technicalities, the countries made a commitment, and were able to stick to it. Sure, there are footnotes involved, and the targets were arguably weak in the first place, but there’s something to be said about peer pressure for meeting commitments.george_bush_climate_change

There are reasons to be cheerful here. “There’s often skepticism about the importance of international law, and many critics claim that the Kyoto Protocol failed. The fact that countries have fully complied is highly significant, and it helps to raise expectations for full adherence to the Paris Agreement,” said Professor Michael Grubb, editor of the Climate Policy journal.

Quite so. The reason the US backed out of the Kyoto Protocol in the first place was partly due to the Byrd-Hagel resolution previously mentioned, but also due to annoyance that with only 37 other countries signed up, it wasn’t fair on the US to be limited. During the presidential debates before the 2000 election, George W Bush stated that he took climate change “very seriously”, but then added “but I’m not going to let the US carry the burden for cleaning up the world’s air, like the Kyoto treaty would have done. China and India were exempted from that treaty.”

There’s no such excuse this time. The Paris Agreement binds every one of the 193 countries that make up the United Nations to cutting emissions. That includes everyone from the big polluters of China and America, all the way down to those most impacted by man-made climate change: the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu.

Unless a certain former reality TV show host gets the keys to the White House. Hoo boy.

Images: Beverly & Pack, Takver and Itzafineday used under Creative Commons

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