Global warning

Sharon Beder, University of Wollongong

David G. Victor The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001 (178 pp). ISBN 0-691-08870-5 (hardback).

When the US withdrew from the 1997 Kyoto agreement on climate change in early 2001, the world was shocked. Kyoto represented the only mechanism obliging developed nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the press that: ‘The president has been unequivocal… He does not support the Kyoto treaty. It is not in the United States’ economic best interest.’ (New York Times, 29 March 2001).

The US withdrawal has been widely viewed as a disaster, but how much hope does the Kyoto Protocol really offer for preventing global warming, with or without US participation? The outcomes of the 1997 Third Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), embodied in the text of the Kyoto Protocol, were disappointing but not surprising given the strength of industry opposition to an effective treaty. Although the European Union had been pushing for average reductions of 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012, the average reduction finally agreed upon turned out to be little more than 5 per cent and three countries were in fact granted approval to increase their emissions, including Australia (by 8 per cent). Targets for developing nations remained voluntary. No enforcement measures were decided upon.

When nations met at The Hague at the end of 2000 to work out mechanisms for meeting reduction targets, none had ratified the Kyoto Protocol and few were on track to achieve the targets set for them. (For the Protocol to be legally binding it has to be ratified by a minimum of 55 nations responsible for at least 55 per cent of emissions. A country that fails to ratify it is not bound by it.) In the US, greenhouse gas emissions had increased by more than 13 percent on 1990 levels (compared with a target of 7% reduction) and in Australia they had risen 17 per cent since 1990.

While other countries continue to talk the talk, the US has admitted it will not comply. But are countries like Australia merely keeping up appearances whilst having no real intention of doing what it takes to meet emissions targets?

Now David G. Victor, in a book on The Collapse of the Protocol, has argued that the Kyoto agreement was bound to fail because it wasn’t a serious agreement to start with: ‘More than anything, negotiators from the advanced industrialized countries wanted a deal—any deal—that would give the impression that their governments were taking global warming seriously… the Protocol’s strict short-term targets give the appearance of serious action but belie the reality that no major government has a viable plan for compliance.’ (pp. 26, 109).

Victor argues that the whole idea of setting limits on greenhouse gases is wrong-headed because governments cannot plan to meet them. Emissions vary with economic growth and technological change, factors that are—according to Victor—beyond the control of governments. Therefore nations, such as the US, only agreed to strict limits because they would be allowed to rely on emissions trading.

The Hague talks collapsed when agreement could not be reached over the extent to which countries should be allowed to use emissions trading and forests as carbon sinks to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Agreement could not be reached because some countries believed that the excessive use of trading and offsets would enable countries like Australia and the United States to continue increasing industry-based greenhouse emissions year after year.

Are countries like Australia merely keeping up appearances with no real intention of doing what it takes to meet emissions targets?

Yet government advisers like Victor argue that without emissions trading, the cost of compliance for nations like the US would be too high—over $1000 per household per year. The reason for this expense is that physical infrastructure is already in place to provide energy, transport and products; and this infrastructure and equipment is reliant on fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.

According to Victor, who obviously doesn’t put much faith in efficiency or conservation measures, compliance would require this entire infrastructure to be replaced. However the infrastructure of developing nations is still being developed, and emissions trading could allow the US to take advantage of the cheaper emissions reductions that could be achieved elsewhere by paying for emissions permits that have been issued to other countries. This would reduce the cost of achieving emissions reductions in the US by ten times, says Victor.

However whilst the developing countries are not part of the Kyoto Protocol they would not be part of any emission trading scheme, and this could well be why the US has been so insistent on the need for developing countries to participate. The US Senate voted 95 to 0 to oppose any agreement at Kyoto that harmed the US economy or that did not include developing countries. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, one of the sponsors of the Senate Resolution, claimed that unless binding reductions for developing countries were included in the agreement then ‘it [would] not see the light of day in the United States.’

Victor’s book sets out to show that the Kyoto targets cannot be met even with emissions trading. This is because of difficulties associated with allocating permits, monitoring compliance, and enforcement. The problem of allocation of permits becomes particularly difficult if developing countries are included. The usual way of allocating permits for emissions trading within a country is by grandfathering. Grandfathering involves allocating permits to firms on the basis of their past emissions. Firms that polluted more in the past would have larger shares. If the permit that a company is allocated were less than their actual emissions, such a firm would have to either try to reduce their emissions or buy extra permits. Similarly they would be able to sell those they don’t need if they reduce their emissions below what they are permitted to emit.

Grandfathering favours existing firms and disadvantages new firms wanting to set up. In order to establish itself, a new firm must buy up enough pollution rights to cover its emissions. Alternatively the government can increase the amount of rights available and give the new firm an allocation. This latter option will increase the amount of pollution and defeat the purpose of trying to reduce overall emissions.

In the case of international emissions trading between nations, grandfathering would favour the most industrialised countries that already put out the highest per capita emissions, giving them the largest shares and not allowing developing countries enough to develop with. The question of how the allocation of permits is made is therefore a highly charged political question. The fairest way would be to allocate each country an equal per capita share, but this would be vehemently opposed by industrialised nations.

The US Senate voted 95 to 0 to oppose any agreement that did not include developing countries.

This is where Victor’s second objection comes in. He argues that international law is notoriously weak, and there are no strong institutions that could compel nations to comply or remain within the Protocol. If a nation doesn’t like its allocation, or finds that it is too expensive to buy the permits it needs, then it can simply default or withdraw with little penalty. Currently the Protocol prevents countries from imposing ‘binding consequences’ (p. 18).

An additional problem would be monitoring each country to ensure that it is only emitting the gases it is allowed. Governments have enough trouble monitoring individual plants, and usually resort to self-monitoring. In the case of emissions trading, Victor points out that it is the sellers of permits that would be liable for their own compliance: ‘This strange scheme would give sellers a strong incentive to flood the market with bogus permits.’ (p. 18).

The current Protocol already has the potential to enable ‘phoney’ or ‘phantom’ emissions reductions without any need for cheating. This would occur, for example, if emissions credits were bought from Russia and other eastern European countries that are in economic decline. Russia’s economic decline has meant that its carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by some 30% below 1990 levels. Now countries such as the US and Japan are looking to buy the rights to those emissions which Russia is unable to use, so that they don’t have to reduce their own emissions. This will not benefit the environment or help to reduce the global emissions of greenhouse gases in the long-term.

Victor’s solutions to the global warming problem include a hybrid of fuel taxes and emissions trading, the building of strong international institutions, the renegotiation of the Kyoto agreement, government investment in adaptation to the effects of global warming such as flooding and rising sea levels, and government investment in ‘geoengineering’. This latter involves bizarre schemes such as giant mirrors in space reflecting sunlight away from the planet so as to cool it! It is strange that someone who has so little faith in the ability of technology to reduce greenhouse emissions can have so much faith in its ability to counter its impacts.

Yet Victor cannot be easily dismissed. His book is an official product of the influential US Council on Foreign Relations, a private think tank ‘dedicated to increasing America’s understanding of the world and contributing ideas to U.S. foreign policy’. The Economist’s Good Think-Tank Guide describes the Council as:

… central to any respectable conspiracy theory about “who really runs American foreign policy”. To left-wingers, the Council is where Wall Street meets Washington and determines how to exploit the third world in the interests of international capitalism.

The reason that the Council is the subject of these conspiracy theories is that anyone who is anybody in the US is a member, including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, David Rockefeller and many executives and CEOs of various large banks, the major media conglomerates, as well as a large contingent from the military and from industry.

Victor’s book is interesting in its own right because of his criticisms of emissions trading as a solution to global warming, but it is also interesting because of the weight of US elite opinion behind it.

Sharon Beder is Associate Professor and head of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong.