Climate change

The Kyoto Protocol has had its day

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2011, 12:00am

Climate change was a hot issue five years ago, fuelled by former US vice-president Al Gore's documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. Then along came the global economic crisis and the slides that so vividly showed the warming effects of carbon pollution were forgotten, replaced by concern about growth rates and jobs. As negotiators meet today in Durban for the latest round of UN talks on the Kyoto Protocol, the process is in a sad state, targets to cut emissions far from being met and the participants at loggerheads as to the way forward. Logic says that the pact should be abandoned so that work can begin afresh on charting a new course.

There is good reason why Kyoto should be laid to rest. The pact on climate change was conceived and negotiated in the 1990s, times far different economically and environmentally from now. Two camps, rich and poor, were created, with the former handed the legally-binding responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 5 per cent of 1990 levels by next year, and the latter being exempt for historical reasons. The process has failed miserably, with emissions getting worse.

Despite this, a push led by China - the world's most polluting nation - India, Brazil and South Africa is under way to prolong the Kyoto process. Self-interest is driving them and other developing nations, which together produce 54 per cent of global emissions: their participation would remain voluntary. European countries, with 13 per cent of emissions, also want to retain the accord. The US, the second largest emitter, did not ratify the pact. Japan, Russia and Canada have already signalled that they want no part.

Global economic uncertainty has left other parts of the climate change equation in doubt. At the UN conference in Cancun last year, US$100 billion was promised to help developing countries tackle greenhouse emissions; European nations were the backbone of the pledges and their financial difficulties mean that little seems likely to now be forthcoming. China has rightly won praise for its pollution-cutting efforts, although there are also doubts that it will attain its ambitious target of reducing the carbon intensity of its industrial output by 40 per cent by 2020.

The protocol has not been a failure. It created a vision and framework to tackle pollutants and set in motion the idea of global co-operation. A multibillion-dollar carbon market was established across Europe that is a model for others to follow. But the pact's time has come and gone. A new way has to be formulated for nations to work together to cut the emissions that are heating our planet and causing the climate to change. Prolonging a process that is not having an effect is of no worth; starting over again is the most sensible option.