On Eve of Bali Climate Confab, Kyoto Wins One, Loses One

With representatives of virtually all the world''s countries about to convene in Bali to discuss what should be done next to deal with climate change, two recent events are sure to affect the political chemistry. On 24 Nov., Australia elected a new government that has pledged to promptly ratify the Kyoto Protocol''the 1997 addendum to a 1992 treaty, which commits the advanced industries countries to collectively cut their emissions by about 5 percent by 2012, compared to 1990 levels. But just the day after the Australian election, Canada'' prime minister told a Commonwealth meeting that Kyoto was a mistake that the world must never repeat.

Australia''s ratification will leave the United States diplomatically isolated, as the only industrial country not to have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. But at least its negotiators will have some support from Canada's conservative leader, Stephen Harper. Speaking at the end of a Commonwealth meeting in Kampala, Uganda, he denounced the protocol for subjecting several dozen industrial countries to binding emissions targets, without holding countries with the fastest growing emissions''notably China and India''to similar targets. Harper promised that Canada will enter the Bali negotiations with a simple position: all major polluters must be included, or there will be no follow-on deal.

Canada, unlike its giant neighbor to the south, has ratified Kyoto. But the reasons for its recent change of heart are not hard to discern. Since 1990, despite its Kyoto commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent, its emissions have actually climbed by 25.3 percent. Those of the supposedly delinquent United States increased by 16.3, a very poor performance by global standards but considerably better than Canada''s. This is an acutely embarrassing position for a country that likes to adopt an international attitude almost as high-minded as Sweden''s.

Rather than apologize at Bali, Harper obviously decided to go on the offensive and say what he really believes. In the past Harper has described Kyoto as a ''money sucking socialist scheme,'' according to Canadian press reports.

Australia''s situation is quirkier. Before last week''s election, the previous government was planning to go to Bali arguing that it was actually meeting its Kyoto target, despite its refusal to ratify the protocol. Because Australia''s economy is so dependent on fossil energy, the country persuaded Kyoto negotiators to give it a 2012 target 8 percent higher than 1990 (making it just one of three countries to obtain such a dispensation). Then, according to two professors at Australian National University writing recently in the Canberra Times, Australia''s negotiators also got the Kyoto conclave to take emissions changes resulting from modified land use into account. As it happened, for reasons entirely coincidental, Australia had just registered from 1990 to 1996 a 50 percent decrease in emissions associated with land clearing. This meant that Australia immediately inherited, upon finalization of the protocol, a net 6 percent decrease in emissions, relative to 1990.

Today, taking land use changes into account, Australia''s emissions are just 6.3 percent higher than in 1990; without accounting for land, which is the more usual way of citing such numbers, the increase is 25.6 percent. Practically speaking, in terms of how Australia sees its record and what it can immediately accomplish, there''s probably not much difference between the positions of the old and new governments. Symbolically and diplomatically, however, the significance of Australia''s Kyoto switch will be immense. U.S. negotiators will arrive at Bali on the defensive''but taking some consolation, at least, that the sometimes self-righteous neighbor to the north is having second thoughts about the Kyoto scheme.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.