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The road to and from Kyoto

Lecture at Merton College, Oxford. 11 February 2005.

The Kyoto Protocol is the first practical international instrument designed to mitigate the mounting dangers represented by climate change. It was negotiated with immense difficulty in December 1997, and signed by 84 countries (and later by 38 others). A key provision was that it would come into effect only when countries which accounted for at least 55 percent of current human emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere had ratified it. The last crucial ratification was by Russia in 2004. The Protocol will come into effect on 16 February 2005.

The road to Kyoto is the road followed over the last half century first by scientists and latterly by politicians and economists in elucidating the mechanisms of climate change, the contribution made to such change by human activities, and its effects on the Earth's environment and the condition of human society.

Last year climate change was described by the Prime Minister as "the most important long-term issue we face as a global community", while his Chief Scientific Adviser said that it represented a threat more serious than that of terrorism. Let me quote two passages from a Declaration following a conference of the British and German governments on 3 November last year.

"The conference agreed that the evidence that human activity was causing climate change, most notably through emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and through deforestation, had been established beyond reasonable doubt. It noted that the atmospheric concentration of the most important greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, had reached a level not seen on Earth for at least 740,000 years, and that levels were likely to continue to rise during this century."

"The conference reviewed the effects already being felt throughout the world. It recognized that, if unabated, and if we did not adapt appropriately, future climate change could have a devastating impact on human society and the natural environment. The costs of inaction, felt mostly in the developing world, far exceeded the costs of action. The effects of climate change were moving to the centre of social and economic worldwide activity."

How did things reach this point? I do not want to spend too long on the history, but it may be worth flagging what seem to me the main points. Understanding of the relationship between carbon dioxide and the surface temperature of the Earth goes back to the 19th century. But it was work during the International Geophysical Year of 1957 that gave it a new impulse. In the 1960s Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring raised the alarm about environmental problems generally.

Following work at MIT, climate change was recognized as a major issue at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, and with the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme afterwards came a series of global as well as national climate research programmes. In the 1970s a number of us began to look at the implications for society, although the conventional wisdom then was that change was very slow and could only take place over several generations. In 1979 the first World Climate Conference took place, and in the 1980s there were numerous conferences and increasing scientific awareness of what was at stake.

Perhaps the key transition from science into politics and economics took place when the G7 group of countries took up the issue, and discussed it at their meeting in Downing Street in 1984. Then came its place in the report of the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. The following year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up, and produced its first Assessment in 1990. In the meantime the issues were dramatized in Margaret Thatcher's speech to the Royal Society in 1988, following by another to the UN General Assembly in 1989. In the same spirit she addressed the Second World Climate Conference in 1990.

By that time climate change was firmly on the world's political and economic as well as scientific agenda. One of the products of the Rio Summit Conference on Environment and Development of 1992 was the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This was followed by the Second Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel in 1995, the signature of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and eleven subsequent meetings of the Parties to it. The Third Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel was published at the end of 2001. The next Assessment will be in 2007: it promises to be much clearer than before, and reduce many of the uncertainties.

Let us look briefly at the underlying science. It was thoroughly explored and brought up to date at a meeting at Exeter last week. At that meeting a timetable of possible effects in different regions was described, with emphasis on the need for "major investment now in both mitigation and adaptation". In the meantime a report from an International Climate Change Task Force was published with strong recommendations for action.

First we must distinguish natural from human-driven climate change.

Natural change

Human-driven change

It is notoriously difficult to distinguish natural from man-made processes, but there is a growing consensus, expressed in successive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that the human contribution is now having a significant if not decisive effect. Working Group I (Science) of the Intergovernmental Panel concluded in 2001 that

" ... in the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the [human-induced] increase in greenhouse gas concentrations".

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 2003 was the third warmest year on record. The warmest year ever was 1998, and the second warmest was 2002. The WMO has stated that late 20th century warmth is unprecedented for at least the past millennium, and in the northern hemisphere the 1990s were the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year in the past 1,000 years.

What would a warmer world look like? Here the uncertainties, region by region, multiply. Efforts have been made by Working Group II (Impacts) of the Intergovernmental Panel to assess possible impacts by continent, but the results are inevitably sketchy. However interpreted, they suggest a different world and a correspondingly different distribution of human activity as people and the living organisms on which they depend try to adapt to change. Such change includes new patterns of rainfall and drought. Until recently there was little evidence of the predicted increase in extreme events. But last year saw more people killed by hurricanes in the Americas, and by typhoons in Asia, than for several decades.

The Intergovernmental Panel predicts that sea levels will rise by between 9cm and 88cm by 2100. But here again the pace of change seems to be increasing. A recent article in the New Scientist looked at evidence from ancient Roman fish pens. In the last two millennia sea levels have risen by 1.35m, with most of this rise in the last 100 years. The change in depth may seem small, but think of this as a volume sloshing across an ocean.

On a global scale effects include:

There are two jokers in the pack. They relate to negative and positive feedback.

Of course there is continuing controversy about both climate change and its effects. The contrarians are small in number but exceedingly noisy. Some of them have been financed by industries which believe they would be adversely affected by limitations on carbon emissions. But the genuine argument has been more about the balance between natural and human-driven change, and the rates of change.

Climate change may pose an unprecedented threat to human society, but it does not come alone. For the moment there are five other things for us to think about: human population increase; degradation of land and accumulation of wastes; water pollution and supply; energy production and use; and the destruction of biodiversity.

Of these factors,

One point is worth adding, the product of recent and continuing research. To a considerable extent, and operating on Darwinian principles, organisms tend to create and maintain the living environment most favourable to them. Thus they can offset and mitigate the consequences of catastrophes through complex systems of feedback. The Earth system behaves as a single, self-regulating system, comprised of physical, chemical, biological and even human components. In a word this is Gaia theory. At present we are pressing Gaia hard without understanding the possible consequences.

Together these regulators keep the Earth system in the stable state that has nurtured modern humans. Climate change alone could disturb one, if not all, of these processes and we have yet to reckon with the consequences of disturbing the so-called teleconnexions between them.

We are in an unprecedented situation, well expressed in the title of a recent book Something New Under The Sun. The scale of the problem was brought out in a Declaration made by over 1,500 scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that the Earth was currently operating in a no-analogue state, and that the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's system was not an option.

Not surprisingly, the scale of the problem has brought the world together as no other environmental hazard could have done. The move from science into politics and economics created a new dimension, well recognized in the Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992. Its broad objective was there defined as the stabilization of "greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".

How this should be done has been discussed at successive meetings of the Parties to the Convention. Recent meetings have concentrated on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. This committed 38 industrial countries, including the United States, to a global carbon dioxide emissions reduction target of 5.2 percent by 2008-2012. The methods to be used included what are called in the jargon Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism.

Together these methods mean that non-industrial countries can benefit from investment in clean technologies. For their part the industrial countries will benefit by having some of their own emissions offset through helping non-industrial countries. The prime need is of course for industrial countries to cut their emissions, and create low carbon economies, persuading the rest of the world to do likewise.

This is horribly complicated, and may sound unrealistic. It depends on some somewhat uncertain science on the nature of carbon sources and sinks. But it remains to be tested, and no doubt modified through experience. It is at least a start.

The 6th meeting or Conference of the Parties in Bonn reached agreement on the ratification of a watered down Kyoto Protocol, but now without the United States. The 7th settled some of the details of the implementation mechanisms. The 8th set in motion the process of making more stringent targets for the second commitment period. The 9th was spent discussing the controversial role of forestry in the Protocol's clean development mechanism. The 10th in Buenos Aires last December marked the 10th anniversary of the entry into force of the Framework Convention.

It was not a happy occasion. On the positive side it looked forward to implementation of the Kyoto Protocol and the period after 2012; on the negative side it was marked by obstruction from the United States, whose representatives played a somewhat mischievous role throughout.

Until recently the rest of the world, including India and China, regarded the problem as one for the industrial countries. But increasingly such countries realize how much their own future welfare is involved. China, with its massive population, is predicted to overtake the United States as the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

The Chinese claim to have reduced their carbon emissions in real terms over the last five years. Some have accused China of overstating the reduction, but even research funded by the US Department of Energy has found that, due to a combination of the restructuring of Chinese industry, improvements in efficiency and other environmental measures, there has been a genuine decrease in emissions.

Even if the Kyoto commitments were met (itself highly doubtful), greenhouse gas emissions would still be some 30 percent up on 1990 by 2010. Thus it is no more than a first step. But even that has not been taken by the biggest polluter of all. The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population but over 20 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions, is a major villain of the piece.

Its unwillingness to accept binding treaty obligations is not new. With American society still based on cheap energy (gasoline prices are still lower than bottled water) and vested interests being close to the heart of the current US Administration, it is no surprise that President Bush has refused to ratify the Protocol.

In the United States many are ignoring the federal Administration. The nine North East states, including New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, are working toward creating a regional greenhouse gas market. Meanwhile, California has enacted legislation to limit carbon dioxide from cars and sports utility vehicles. These state initiatives are important not only because they can help pave the way for federal action but also because US states are themselves large emitters of greenhouse gases. California's emissions exceed those of Brazil. Ohio's emissions exceed those of Turkey and Taiwan, and emissions in Illinois exceed those from the Netherlands.

The European Union countries, including our own, ratified the Protocol in New York on 31 May 2002. The European Union now has an overall emissions target of 8 percent below 1990 levels for the period between 2008 and 2012. The British government has decided to do still better and has adopted a legally binding target of 12.5 percent.

Since then, as global warming seems to be proceeding faster than expected, the government has also adopted a voluntary target of 20 percent reduction by 2010. At present it seems unlikely to do better than 14 percent. More recently it has set itself a still more ambitious target in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution: a 60 percent reduction by 2050.

The government has adopted a whole raft of measures on energy to reduce emissions. First is the European emissions trading scheme which began on 1 January 2005. Under the scheme European Union member state governments are required to set an emission cap for all installations covered by the scheme which include: the electricity generating industry; oil refineries; the iron and steel industry; the minerals industry; and paper, pulp and board manufacturing. So far aviation and bunker fuel are missing.

There is still a big question mark over whether Kyoto will much affect the British economy. Will it help the government achieve its targets? Much will depend upon the price of tradable emission permits. Here the Government has been less than resolute. To cushion industry from changes that will inevitably have to come, the Government has relaxed its intended carbon dioxide cap from 736m tonnes over the next three years to 756m tonnes.

This decision has already been challenged by the European Commission, and sits strangely with the Prime Minister's continuing efforts to show leadership on climate change both within the G8 group and within the European Union (whose Presidency Britain assumes on 1 July).

The political decibels of climate change have become much louder. The Prime Minister set out his views in The Economist on 1 January, and used strong language on the subject at the World Economic Forum at Davos on 26 January. In making it one of the two prime points on the agenda of the G8 countries, he pointed out that these countries accounted for 65 percent of global GDP, and 47 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

He said that the world should now be united in moving in the direction of greenhouse gas reductions through a package of practical measures, largely focused on technology. A great many low carbon technologies had been developed. We needed greater energy efficiency, development of renewable energy sources, cleaner fossil fuels, and programmes to avoid waste. In addition the G8 countries needed to work in partnership with such countries as China, India, Brazil and South Africa in the same direction. He believed that this carried many more advantages than penalties, and that anyway it was the direction in which we all had to go.

The recommendations of the International Climate Change Task Force last month pointed in the same direction. The Task Force recommended that a G8 Climate Group should be formed to deal with such long-standing issues as agricultural subsidies, set new targets for carbon emissions, put more money into research and development, bring in other countries, help countries not covered by the Kyoto Protocol, and build public support for the necessary policies. We now have to see whether the action in any way matches the rhetoric.

The road from Kyoto is clear. It is hard to quarrel with any of the signposts set out by the Task Force. The key question is what should follow the Kyoto Protocol after 2012. There are many ideas around, including new arrangements for methane. A lot depends on how the issue can be managed within the G8, and whether the Prime Minister will at last be able to persuade President Bush to join the rest of the world.

In my own view much firmer action should now be considered. When I first thought about the problems in the mid 1970s, I then wondered whether some sort of trade sanctions might be imposed on countries that failed to adopt the necessary policies, but took commercial advantage of countries that did so. I hope that no such measures will be necessary. We can already see US industries deciding to take their own measures, and the insurance and reinsurance industries, like many banks, are beginning to apply new criteria in establishing future premiums and investments. We shall have to see what happens. Too much pussyfooting at this stage will not help.

In conclusion if we are to tackle climate change and the wider environmental crisis developing around us, we must all learn to think and behave differently. Even those who accept the premise of the need for change have very different priorities. For what it is worth my own are as follows:

How will these changes come about? Change usually takes place for three main reasons. First through leadership from above by institutions or individuals; secondly through public pressure from below; and thirdly - however regrettably - through some useful catastrophes to jerk us out of our inertia into more sensible courses.

The Astronomer Royal has rated the chances of our civilization surviving until the end of the century as no more than 50 percent. The stakes are indeed high but the odds should lengthen as public understanding increases. All over the world people have to change their ways and remodel their thinking. Otherwise nature will do what she has done to over 99 percent of species that have ever lived, and do the job for us.


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