Treaty on Climate Control Gets a Boost at Johannesburg’s Earth Summit

Kyoto Breakthrough

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, an exhibition protested the refusal of the U.S. and Australia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. (photo: AFP)

Though it was dismissed by many commentators as a “talkfest” resulting in few concrete commitments, the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg from Aug. 24 to Sept. 4, did boast one important achievement: It produced some forward momentum on the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

As a result of the summit, the number of countries that have agreed to ratify the treaty increased from 70 to 89. Significantly, Russia, China, and Canada all used the Johannesburg summit as a platform for announcements that they would ratify the agreement soon. Their statements left the United States and Australia, which have been widely criticized for backing away from the treaty, looking ever more isolated in their opposition.

“The decision by Canada and Russia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol… leaves the United States and Australia exposed like shags on the environmental rock,” wrote Kenneth Davidson in Melbourne’s centrist The Age on Sept. 5. Though the Bush administration is clearly politically dependent on the fossil-fuel industry, Davidson wrote, “there is no apparent rationale for Australia staying outside the Kyoto agreement except that the Howard government is in thrall to aluminum producers and coal miners.”

Writing in Brussels’ Catholic-oriented Groot Bijgaarden De Standaard on Sept. 4, Antoon Wouters agreed that “a serious breakthrough has been achieved with the readiness of Russia and Canada to ratify the protocol this year,” and proposed that “Johannesburg will perhaps not be a failure.”

The Kyoto Protocol, which was originally drafted in 1997 and subsequently revised to take U.S. concerns into account, sets out concrete targets for industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by 2012. Under the treaty’s terms, developing countries can continue to increase emissions in order to ensure economic growth, but major industrialized nations must reduce their emissions by an average of 5.2 percent of their 1990 levels. Specific targets include an 8 percent reduction for countries in the European Union, 7 percent for the United States, and 6 percent for Canada and Japan. 

The agreement will immediately come into effect when at least 55 countries, accounting for at least 55 percent of 1990 global carbon dioxide emissions, have ratified it. Since the United States accounts for 36 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, its rejection presents a serious hindrance to the treaty’s implementation. The Bush administration has always insisted that the Kyoto Protocol places too much responsibility on industrialized nations, and that its adoption would jeopardize the U.S. economy and put American workers out of jobs.

It was hardly surprising, then, that President Bush chose not to attend the Johannesburg summit, drawing criticism from international commentators. “President Bush's refusal to attend the Earth Summit was… only the latest signal of how little he cares about environmental issues,” wrote Ronan Fanning in Dublin’s conservative Sunday Independent (Sept. 8). An even more caustic view was taken by Jeremy Seabrook, who wrote in New Delhi’s independent The Statesman (Sept. 1) that “if George Bush has elected not to go to Johannesburg, this is because he prefers to stay at home, the better to safeguard his chosen weapon of mass destruction. This is, of course, the U.S. economy, that imperious omnivore that can bring and fetch for its masters whatsoever they desire from the remotest corners of earth.”

But after the summit, it may be possible to implement the Kyoto Protocol without the participation of the United States. If Canada and Russia formally ratify the agreement, Kyoto would come into effect, since those countries’ emissions levels, added to those of Japan and the European Union countries, would push the total to above 55 percent.

In Canada, controversy swirled around Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s announcement at the Johannesburg summit that the Canadian Parliament would vote on ratification later this year. The solid majority held in the legislature by Chrétien’s Liberal Party makes ratification a virtual certainty. But while polls showed a majority of Canadians supporting ratification, conservative commentators, writing in the country’s opinion columns, were strident in their opposition.

“Kyoto is a stalking horse for socialism,” wrote Elizabeth Nickson in Toronto’s conservative National Post (Sept. 6). “Ratification…will mean, for Canadians, that the Earth comes first, and that they, as humans, exist to serve the health of the Earth, as this health is judged by bureaucrats, informed or, as it often happens, otherwise.”

The effect on Canada’s economy could be cataclysmic, wrote Roger Phillips, a board member of Imperial Oil Ltd., in Toronto’s centrist Globe and Mail (Sept. 5). “Kyoto’s impact on business capital investment in Canada will be almost immediate,” he wrote. “Faced with expanding or modernizing your North American operations, would you pick Kyoto-free America or a Canada faced with ever-increasing pressures on energy use (and price), with a government where regulation-writing envirocrats reign supreme?”

Perhaps reacting to such outbursts, Chrétien's administration took a step back from its endorsement of the Protocol in the week following the summit, when Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson told news agencies that Canada would seek credits for up to 29 percent of its reduction rate in return for exporting “clean” energy (natural gas and hydroelectric power) to the United States. The announcement was greeted with another round of criticism. “Mr. Chrétien…proposes that Canada ratify Kyoto, then unilaterally define how it applies to Canada,” wrote Jeffrey Simpson in Toronto’s centrist Globe and Mail (Sept. 6). “What his government proposes is something that, were it tried by the United States with an international treaty, would send Canada into paroxysms of righteous indignation and anti-American spluttering.”

For Russia, conversely, ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is likely to provide a welcome economic boost, since the country will be able to sell polluting credits to other nations when it reduces its own levels of emissions. “As soon as our current level of emissions amounts to 65 percent of its 1990 level, that mechanism would give Russia an opportunity to earn billions,” wrote Pyotr Grishin and Valery Petrov enthusiastically in Moscow’s centrist Izvestia (Sept. 6). By observing the treaty, Grishin and Petrov argued, the country would also gain “an extra tool of political influence on the United States as the leading polluter, enabling Russia to generate at least some indirect benefits in other matters.”

China, undoubtedly motivated by similar incentives, claimed more lofty inspirations through its official announcements. “China is always committed strongly to sustainable development,” Kui-Nang Mak, a United Nations representative, told the Xinhua News Agency (Sept. 3). “I am sure with the support of Premier Zhu, China will reduce greenhouse [gases] and set a very good example for the world.”

As a developing country, China is not bound by targets for reducing emissions, so its ratification will have no effect on bringing the Protocol into force. Nevertheless, “Beijing’s decision is of psychological importance because it is the developing countries’ leader,” wrote Wouters in Groot Bijgaarden De Standaard (Sept. 4).

In other countries, some editorialists suggested that the space devoted at the summit to the Kyoto Protocol was a waste of their leaders’ time and energy. “[Swedish Prime Minister] Goran Persson devoted his short speech in Johannesburg to, among other things, demanding ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. He could have spent his time and the taxpayers’ money on something more important,” read an editorial in Stockholm’s conservative Svenska Dagbladet on Sept. 4.

Referring to statistics compiled by controversial Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg, whose 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World sought to downplay fears about the global environment, Svenska Dagbladet’s editorialist complained, “the costs of carrying out the Kyoto plan for just a single year would be more than that of providing the entire world with clean water. That latter could save 2 million human lives per year.”

Even those who viewed the ratification announcements as an important step forward were skeptical about their implementation. “Experience shows that there is a huge gap between what is agreed upon and what actually happens,” wrote Iván Restrepo in México City’s left-wing La Jornada (Sept. 9). “The Kyoto Protocol is a good example.”

But other publications chose to cast the Kyoto breakthrough in a more positive light. “Finally we can see the possibility of an agreement…which represents the dawning of a real action against climate changing,” wrote Ermete Realacci in the Rome-based journal of the Freedom Advocacy Organization, Il Manifesto (Sept. 6). ”Maybe from the ash of Johannesburg will be born a real commitment… to create a world with less pollution and less unfairness.”