Fred Pearce: The Kyoto Protocol May Have Done More Harm Than Good

  • Date: 04/01/13
  • Fred Pearce, New Scientist

The Kyoto protocol may actually have increased global emissions. 

Fifteen years after its painful birth in Kyoto, Japan, the world’s first legally binding agreement to limit emissions of greenhouse gases ended this week.

For some it is a victorious conclusion. The 37 industrial nations that stuck with the protocol after the US pulled out in 2005 say they exceeded their promises, cutting their emissions for the period from 2008 to 2012 to an average of 16 per cent below 1990 levels, compared with the 4.7 per cent promised in the agreement.

But the protocol only ever applied to rich industrialised nations. Most of the cuts came from Eastern European countries when their economies collapsed after the fall of the Berlin Wall – reductions that would have happened anyway.

Emissions rise

In the same period, global emissions have risen by 50 per cent, thanks to the rapid industrialisation of nations such as China, not covered by the original deal.

Formally the protocol lives on. Climate talks in Doha in December created a second “compliance period” stretching to 2020, when diplomats promise a new deal involving all nations will come into force. But with Russia, Japan, New Zealand and Canada pulling out, this next period only covers nations which contribute 14 per cent of global emissions, mainly the European Union and Australia.

What’s more, phase 2 contains the same fundamental loophole as the first deal. Too many rich countries have met their targets by moving their carbon-intensive industries, such as steel and aluminium manufacturing, offshore to nations not covered by the protocol.

Moving to China

This allowed the UK to easily meet its Kyoto target, cutting its domestic carbon dioxide emissions by 23 per cent from 1990 levels by 2011. But several assessments of its total carbon footprint – including emissions produced from the manufacture of imported goods – reveal an increase of around 10 per cent since 1990, even allowing for the recent economic downturn.

Worse still, most of the new manufacturing nations are both highly inefficient users of energy and power their manufacturing largely with the dirtiest of the major fuels, coal. The result is higher emissions.

Energy economist Dieter Helm from the University of Oxford asked recently:“What exactly is the point of reducing emissions in Europe if it encourages energy-intensive industry to move to China, where the pollution will be even worse?”

It seems likely that, in this way, the Kyoto protocol may actually have increased global emissions. Ouch.

New Scientist, 3 January 2013