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Kyoto's failures haunt new U.N. talks

The work of fixing the treaty's flaws begins today in Indonesia.

December 03, 2007|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

In the Kyoto Protocol's accounting of greenhouse gases, the former Eastern bloc is a smashing success.

Russia: Down 29% in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990.

Romania: A 43% reduction.

Latvia: A resounding 60% drop.

Reductions such as those across Eastern Europe were the main reason the United Nations was recently able to report a 12% drop in emissions from the accord's industrialized countries over the 1990-2005 period.

It was an illusion.

The progress wasn't due to a global embrace of green power, but rather to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which shut down smoke-belching factories across the region.

"Their emissions dropped before Kyoto even existed," said Michael Gillenwater, a climate policy researcher at Princeton University.

Despite the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's status as the flagship of the fight against climate change, it has been a failure in the hard, expensive work of actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Its restrictions have been so gerrymandered that only 36 countries are required to limit their pollution. Just over a third of those -- members of the former Eastern bloc -- can pollute at will because their limits were set so far above their actual emissions.

China and India, whose fast-rising emissions easily cancel out any cuts elsewhere, are allowed to keep polluting.

And the biggest polluter of all, the United States, has simply refused to join the treaty.

That leaves Western Europe, Canada, Japan and New Zealand to do the work of the world. Their emissions are rising despite their commitment, starting next year, to reduce them by an average of roughly 8% from 1990 levels.

No more leeway

Fixing the flaws of Kyoto has become an urgent crusade as United Nations talks begin today in Bali, Indonesia, to create the successor to the treaty, which expires at the end of 2012. Negotiations are expected to last at least two years.

This time, scientists say there is no leeway for weak measures. The push has come from a series of landmark reports this year by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that concluded that greenhouse gas emissions must begin declining in the next decade to prevent a dangerous temperature rise.

The panel, which shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore, laid out a framework for reducing emissions that could cost trillions of dollars over the next two decades.

The question is whether the nations meeting in Bali are willing to embrace such stringent measures.

"Countries are going to have to get serious," said Mark Bernstein, a USC energy and environmental policy expert.

For all its flaws, Kyoto was a remarkable agreement, forged at a time when there were still widespread doubts about the seriousness -- or even existence -- of global warming.

For the public, climate change was largely an exotic vision of environmental collapse that sounded at times like science fiction. But scientists, who understood the physics of rising temperatures, were already worried.

Delegates meeting in Kyoto, Japan, outlined an agreement that would last 15 years. It would establish a baseline for emissions somewhere in the past and require countries to meet reduction targets.

Because the industrialized world was responsible for the massive accumulation of greenhouse gases over the last 150 years, it would take the lead and bear the bulk of the costs.

A key element was to get the world to sign on together as a statement of resolve.

It immediately became apparent that regulating emissions from fossil fuels -- the lifeblood of the world economy -- would not be easy.

Developing countries, led by China and India, refused to agree to mandatory caps, arguing that their economies should not be punished for the pollution sins of the industrialized nations.

The Kyoto signatories agreed to exempt developing countries from pollution limits. That has amounted to 139 nations.

Today, the top nine major countries with the fastest-growing emissions are in the developing world.

Together, 10 developing countries increased their annual emissions by more than 5 billion metric tons, accounting for 75% of the growth in global carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2005, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Energy.

China's emissions grew 138% over that period, catching up to U.S. levels and setting a pace to double them in less than a decade. "They're going to have people gagging in the street," said John Weyant, an energy expert at Stanford University.

Letting the developing world avoid emissions caps put the burden on 38 industrial nations -- the United States, most of Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

One problem was picking a year to establish the emissions baseline.

A late date would have been least painful for countries with healthy economies. But that would have put the Eastern European countries at an enormous disadvantage because their economies had crashed and thus their baseline would have been too low.

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