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The End of Kyoto? Or: Why It Doesn’t Really Matter What the Russians Do about Kyoto

By Roger Sedjo

(Printer-Friendly Version)

Russia’s hesitancy to ratify the Kyoto Protocol only confirms what has already become obvious: the Kyoto Protocol is in very deep trouble. But regardless of what Russia does, many countries are unlikely to even begin to meet their targeted emission reductions commitments. These targets, designed to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHG) in order to restrain global warming, call for emission level reductions in the period 2008– 2012 of about 6–8% below the levels of the base year, 1990.

To be sure, not all industrial countries chose to ratify Kyoto. President Bush received strong criticism for his decision that the United States will not participate. Other industrial countries, such as Australia, also chose not to participate. And Russia, whose membership is required to meet the 55% participation rate by industrial countries, remains a wild card.

Even with Russian ratification, however, the fundamental failure of the Protocol is almost assured. The recent admonition by the European Union (EU) environmental commissioner "that the trend is going in the wrong direction," is indicative of the lack of progress. The European Union has a collective target of GHG reductions of 8% below 1990 levels and has made strides to reach that goal. But with the exception of the United Kingdom—which is in the process of converting its energy sector from coal to natural gas—and Sweden the EU is not on a path to reach its targets. The United Kingdom was quite successful, achieving the target reduction of 12.5% percent in the year 2000 largely due to North Sea gas reserves. Spain, by contrast, is allowing a 15% increase in emissions by the 2008–2012 period, but actual emissions in 2000 were 32 % above the 1990 base. However, the European Union is still hoping to meet its collective target and then undertake internal trades among surplus and deficit countries to allow lagging countries to meet their individual targets. The likelihood of success remains open to question.

Failure to stay on target is not limited EU countries. Japan has a targeted reduction of 6%, which it plans meet though a combination of new technologies and the use of capturing carbon dioxide in forest sequestration. The Japanese plan assumes that overall energy emissions will remain at their 1990 levels, based on a 30% increase in nuclear power, which does not emit greenhouse gases. However, by 2000 Japan found itself with actual emissions 11% above the 1990 base, despite an economy that stagnated through most of the 1990s. With the Japanese economy finally picking up, the requisite increases in nuclear facilities not progressing at a rate adequate to meet the 30% target, and anticipated large gains from voluntary activities, such as home insulation, unlikely to be forthcoming on the scale required, Japan will be severely tried to meet her targets.

Similarly, Canada will find it extremely difficult to meet its greenhouse gas emission target of a 6 % reduction from 1990 levels. Since that year Canada has experienced modest economic expansion and correspondingly reasonably large increases in greenhouse gas emissions. Canadian emissions in 2000 were 19.6 percent above those of 1990. Another business-as-usual decade would bring emissions in 2010 to about 35 percent above 1990. The domestic emission trading system proposed for Canada, together with a plethora of ad hoc measures are unlikely to produce the emission reductions required to meet its target. A senior Canadian official publicly boasted that Canada would meet its targets regardless of Russian involvement. Don’t bet on it.

Until recently, the above estimates might have seemed moot. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced dramatic declines in economic activity and coincidental large decreases in greenhouse gas emissions. Kyoto allows Russian emission declines below its 1990 base to be traded as so called "hot air" credits to countries having difficulty meeting their targets. Hence, countries missing their domestic targets could expect meet them through the purchase of Russian "hot air" and thereby declare compliance victory. No more. Even if Russian should ratify Kyoto, the availability of "hot air" could well be limited. Russian officials have stated publicly that, if their GDP grows as projected, it likely would utilize need all its hot air to meet its own Kyoto target. Such a public statement may simply be a negotiating tactic, but the Russian hot air surplus could quickly be expended in the face of continued economic expansion. More generally, Russian concerns about Kyoto inhibiting its future economic growth appear to be a serious reason for its apparent reluctant to quickly ratify Kyoto.

Russian ratification is no guarantee of Kyoto success. Kyoto is on a path to fail to meet its GHG reduction targets with or without Russia. This failure will necessitate a complete rethinking of the approach for addressing the global warming issue.

*****

Roger Sedjo is a Senior Fellow at Resources for the Future. He was a lead author and convening lead author to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Second and Third Assessment Reports on Climate Change (1996, 2001). Resources for the Future improves environmental and natural resource policymaking through objective social science research of the highest caliber.

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