The Ghost of Kyoto Still Lurks
The Ghost of Kyoto Still Lurks
On 22 April the UN headquarters on New York’s East River was agog with excitement. For the first time in history representatives of more than 170 nations in colourful costumes were present to sign on to the climate agreement reached in Paris at the end of last year.
It was a momentous occasion for humanity as representatives of billions of people admitted that climate change is a global problem and needs a global solution. However significant that acknowledgement might be the signing ceremony could remain but a symbolic act. Signatory nations have to muster up courage to implement the agreement to limit global mean temperature change to 2 degree Celsius.
Signing was the first step. The agreement will go into effect after 55 countries representing at least 55 per cent of global emissions will have joined it. When that goal is achieved by the end of this year, it would be a significant but also the easy part. At the risk of being a party pooper, it is necessary to remind those clinking glasses in New York that almost 18 years ago representatives of 84 countries came to the same building to sign the Kyoto Protocol. On 31 December 2012 the protocol created to address global warming was given a quiet burial.
The main reason the attempt failed was that the negotiated commitment to reduce emission could not be enforced. Major emitters like the US signed the protocol but refused to ratify it, and Canada instead of complying simply withdrew. There was no price to be paid for reneging.
To ensure the success of the Paris Agreement to replace failed Kyoto, the organisers simply removed the need for external enforcement. Instead of laying down each country’s responsibility to reduce emissions, the countries were simply asked to state their intended nationally determined contributions. But there was no mechanism to ensure that they live up to their commitments.
How likely is it that the moral responsibility undertaken for the good of the world would succeed now where Kyoto failed? History does not suggest any change in countries’ tendency to free-ride. Columbia University climate scientist Scott Barrett says the only way the pledged voluntary contributions could achieve the 2-degree goal is “if a miracle occurs around 2030” — some technological breakthrough forcing global emissions to plummet. Even then, he says, the chances of staying within the 2 degree goal are no better than 50-50.
Not only enforcement mechanism is lacking, the way the Paris Agreement was achieved did not allow for any negotiation about a country’s pledge to limit emissions and the need to link it with the requirements of international finance.
To meet its enormous energy demands, India wants to double its consumption of coal over the next 10 years. But burning coal of that magnitude goes against the intended goal of abating global warming, which poses threat to monsoon-dependent India with its shrinking groundwater and rising sea level imperils the populated coastline.
Barrett told me, “The other countries should have helped India identify a viable alternative to coal and calculate the cost premium for the alternative.” The rich countries, he added, “should then have figured out how to divide the burden of paying for this cost premium.”
India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar has urged rich nations to undertake the “urgent” task of mobilising the pledged $100 billion green fund. Barrett says it is possible that paying for alternate energy could be taken up by the new Green Fund, but there is no indication yet that this is going to happen. Meanwhile, the ghost of Kyoto still hovers over the signing ceremony in Manhattan.
Nayan Chanda is the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization and is consulting editor of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center, Yale University.