AUGUST 8, 2005

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By Avery Poole

There is a general consensus that global warming is underway, but what should we do about it? The Kyoto Protocol has proven to be a hotbed of contention amongst scientists, policymakers, environmentalists and industry. Is it an exciting and groundbreaking development in the fight against global warming and the broader problem of climate change, or an ineffective and economically harmful attempt to win political kudos?

What is the Kyoto Protocol and how is it supposed to address global warming?

The Kyoto Protocol, an international and legally binding agreement to reduce global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, entered into force on 16 February 2005. It has been ratified by 141 states, including all major industrialised countries except the United States, Australia and Monaco.

The Kyoto Protocol is an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCC is an agreement to reduce GHG emissions, especially carbon dioxide, and was signed in Rio at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. However, by 1996 it was clear that little progress had been made, and scientists and environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) called for a renewed effort to combat global warming. Part of the problem was that the UNFCCC did not articulate specific targets for reductions.

The result was a conference of the Rio signatories in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997, where they committed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and five other GHGs: methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Signatories committed to reduce these emissions by 5.2% of 1990 levels as an average over the period 2008 - 2012. Most provisions of the Protocol apply only to developed countries, listed in Annex 1 to the UNFCCC. Developing countries were not included given that the current climate change problems are regarded as having been largely caused by the industrialisation processes of developed countries.

Two somewhat controversial ‘loopholes’ may enable some countries to avoid an outright reduction of GHG emissions. Firstly, they can engage in ‘emissions trading’, whereby countries which had successfully reduced their emissions below their Kyoto targets could ‘sell’ their surplus emissions to other countries for use as ‘credits’. Secondly, countries with significant forests and that engage in reforestation can earn credits due to their so-called ‘carbon sinks’, given that trees absorb carbon dioxide.

How effective is the Kyoto Protocol?

Given that it entered into force on 16 February 2005, it is perhaps too early to gauge the Protocol’s effectiveness. It could not enter into force until 55% of Parties to the UNFCCC accounting for at least 55% of the global CO2 emissions in 1990 had ratified the agreement, and this was finally achieved when Russia ratified in November 2004. This brought the number of ratifications to 141, representing 61% of global GHG emissions (as of February 2005). However, initial reports suggest that several countries are not on track to reach their targets. This, of course, highlights the omnipresent problem of international treaties and agreements: signatories do not always implement measures to fulfil their commitments on a timely basis, or at all. This is not simply a matter of rhetoric not being matched with reality; governments must contend with domestic pressure from commercial interests, lobby groups, and of course, the electorate.

The International Energy Agency found that, between 1990 and 2002, several countries actually increased their GHG emissions. This includes most EU countries, despite the EU’s vehement support for the Protocol and frequent criticism of the US refusal to ratify it. According to the IEA, global emissions of carbon dioxide (the main GHG) increased by 16.4% during the period.[1] Such statistics obviously do not bode well for the Protocol’s desired impact.

However, the success of signatories in reaching their Kyoto targets is not necessarily a measure of the Protocol’s effectiveness in combating climate change. This, of course, depends on whether those targets are appropriate, and will make a significant impact on global warming even if they are all reached. Hence, the scientific debate that continues with furore.

What is the scientific debate?

Firstly, there is much scepticism regarding the degree of global warming that is actually taking place. Some scientists argue that the Kyoto Protocol has shaky scientific foundations, and that the rate of global warming has not been agreed upon. Another aspect of the debate concerns whether the Protocol will make any real difference even if targets are successfully met. Some argue that it will not, and that its impact will be virtually negligible. Others claim that while the Protocol is a positive first step, it must be followed by further agreements with more stringent commitments.

The Kyoto Protocol did rely on scientific evidence in its design. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1989, and comprises leading scientists appointed by governments to review scientific findings on climate change and provide advice to policymakers. It has summarised the work of around 2,000 climate change expects, and concluded that the world is indeed getting warmer, largely due to man-made causes. The IPCC has also found evidence of rising sea levels, retreating mountain glaciers and reduced snow cover.

Despite these findings, a fiery debate about the scientific basis of the Kyoto Protocol, and climate change generally, continues. Philip Stott, emeritus professor of biogeography at the University of London, is a prominent climate change sceptic who points to what he regards as a fundamental contradiction of the Protocol: “that climate is one of the most complex systems known, yet that we can manage it by trying to control a small set of factors, namely greenhouse gas emissions. Scientifically, this is not mere uncertainty: it is a lie.”[2] Scientists such as Stott do not necessarily deny that climate change is occurring, but that we do not yet fully understand how it works and the most appropriate means of addressing it. Some regard Kyoto as merely a political response to environmental pressure groups, rather than an agreement formulated on the basis of ‘hard science’. Policy and science thus intersect in interesting and contentious ways.

The second broad group of critics doubt that the Protocol will have any notable impact, even if its targets are met. For example, Dr James Hansen, a NASA scientist, and colleagues note that climate simulations have demonstrated that ‘the Kyoto reductions will have little effect in the 21st century, and “30 Kyotos” may be needed to reduce global warming to an acceptable level.’[3] Further, many have argued that without the world’s biggest economy, the Protocol is virtually meaningless. Individual reductions made by other nations pale in comparison to continued US emissions, and collectively they still amount to only 61%. Of course, while this argument may be valid, the Protocol may be valuable as a first step in addressing climate change, and yield benefits simply by drawing attention to the issue and increasing public awareness.

Canadian scientists have been actively involved in the debate. In June 2003, 46 climate experts (mostly Canadian, but a few international) signed an open letter to then-future Prime Minister Paul Martin. The letter laments the lack of ‘credible science consultations’ undertaken by the government, and calls for ‘wide ranging consultations with non-governmental climate scientists.’[4] The scientists do not refute the scientific basis of the Protocol, but argue that Canada’s commitment to it should have been made only after a comprehensive debate, to ensure that it is based on a ‘strong foundation of environmental science’. They believe that basing Kyoto on the work of government-appointed scientists (on the IPCC) does not amount to impartial evidence.

Dr Timothy Ball, an environmental consultant and former professor of climatology at the University of Winnipeg, was one of the signatories to the letter. However, he goes beyond the position of the letter to attack a number of ‘myths’ about the Protocol and climate change generally. He argues that ‘a social agenda is what really drives Kyoto, not environmental concerns’.[5] Dr Kenneth Green, a scientist at The Fraser Institute in Vancouver, agrees, and points out that several US and Canadian scientists argue that the threat of global warming is overstated by the IPCC.[6] Such arguments characterise the other prominent aspect of the Kyoto discourse: the political / commercial debate.

What is the political / commercial debate?

The Kyoto Protocol was formulated on the premise that we have a responsibility to redress some of the damage caused by industrialisation. Further, it is assumed that the economic costs of environmental damage will be reduced in the long term, if it is addressed now. However, several Protocol signatories have encountered vehement opposition domestically, largely due to the perceived economic costs of implementing measures to reduce GHG emissions. Not surprisingly, representatives of industries that rely on fossil fuels are particularly vocal.

Powerful industry lobby groups undoubtedly influenced the US decision not to ratify the Protocol. While the US signed it under the Clinton administration, it has refused to ratify it and hence make it binding. The initial basis of the US objection, as expressed by a Senate resolution in June 1997, is that developing countries are not required to reduce GHG emissions. The argument is that China and India, while classed as ‘developing’ by the Protocol, are rapidly industrialising and emitting GHGs. However, George W Bush has been more explicit about the perceived damage to the US economy of committing to the Protocol. At the same time, he asserts that he supports the notion that climate change must be addressed.[7] The US position is that it will address climate change by implementing ‘cleaner’, more efficient technology, but on its own terms.

The question of whether Protocol is the most appropriate means to address climate change will thus no doubt continue to be contentious. The debate remains prominent in Canada, particularly since the Protocol has come into force and the Canadian government is expected to implement measures to fulfil Canada’s commitment. On 13 April 2005, the government released a plan named Moving Forward on Climate Change: A Plan for Honouring Our Kyoto Commitment. This is the first stage of ‘Project Green,’ intended to oversee the pursuit of Canada’s Kyoto targets. The government has been criticised by various groups and individuals both for failing to implement such measures on a timely basis, and for signing the Protocol in the first place.

These concerns are partly related to the absence of the US. Kenneth Green worries that the Protocol will be detrimental to Canadian trade competitiveness, given that the resulting price increases of electricity, natural gas and gasoline will be undoubtedly passed on to the consumer. The US, which absorbs 87% of Canadian exports, may find other trading partners to be more commercially viable.[8] In addition, Mark Jaccard from the School of Resource and Environmental Management Simon Fraser University predicts substantial increases in the Canadian cost of living due to higher energy prices.[9] Green hopes that Paul Martin is merely paying lip service to the Protocol but will not actually seek to implement measures to fulfil Canada’s commitment. This seems somewhat optimistic, and a touch perverse.

What does the future hold for Kyoto?

So what is the future for the Kyoto Protocol, and for the fight against climate change? The success of the Protocol will evidently depend to a large extent on the political will of the countries that have ratified it, which in turn is a function of domestic pressures and competing interests in each country.

The limitations of the Protocol do not necessarily portend the failure of global efforts to combat climate change. Murray Ward, a New Zealand climate change consultant, argues that the Protocol was never intended to represent the final solution, but rather a ‘necessary first step.’ He regards the major contribution of Kyoto as the establishment of the global carbon market, which will be ‘a primary means to mobilise investment in energy efficiency and renewable and cleaner technology’.[10] Thus, the primary benefit of the Protocol may be the establishment of mechanisms with which further global solutions to climate change can be sought.

Continued debate is valuable in that it motivates research agendas and alternative explorations of addressing a global issue. However, the vehement and protracted nature of the Kyoto discourse is indicative of the challenges of international cooperation, given individual state interests. Further, it demonstrates the difficulties associated with coordinating scientific evidence and political motivations, on issues that purport to affect all of humanity.

As Joseph Joubert wrote, “it is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” However, one hopes that we can settle this question enough to actually do something about it!


1. Cited in Robert J. Samuelson, ‘Greenhouse Hypocrisy’, The Washington Post, 29 June 2005

2. Quoted in Alex Kirby, ‘Sceptics denounce climate science ‘lie’’, BBC News, 25 February 2002, Date Accessed: 13 June 2005

3. James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Reto Ruedy, Andrew Lacis & Valder Oinas, ‘Global Warming in the Twenty-First Century: An Alternative Scenario’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, vol. 97, no. 18, 12 September 2000, pp. 9875-9880,
Date Accessed: 4 July 2005

4. Open Letter to Paul Martin, Financial Post, 4 June 2003, Date Accessed: 13 June 2005

5. Timothy Ball, ‘Myth #10: 'The Kyoto Accord, and other climate change initiatives, are focused solely on solving environmental problems,' Date Accessed: 4 July 2005

6. Kenneth Green, ‘Kyoto Krazy,’ Fraser Forum, Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, January 2003, , Date Accessed: 4 July 2005

7. ‘Kyoto Protocol’, Wikipedia, Date Accessed: 13 June 2005

8. Kenneth Green, ‘Kyoto Krazy’

9. Mark Jaccard, John Nyboar, & Bryn Sadwonic, The Cost of Climate Policy, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002

10. Murray Ward, ‘Getting the story straight,’ The New Zealand Herald, June 28, 2005

Sources and Further Reading

Canadian Government’s Climate Change page (focuses on Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol)

Dr Timothy Ball’s site ‘Envirotruth

Environment Canada’s Climate Change page

Friends of Science Society (non-profit organization based in Calgary, made up of active and retired geologists, engineers, earth scientists and other professionals, as well as concerned Canadians ‘who believe the science behind the Kyoto Protocol is questionable’)

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (‘IPCC’)

Open letter to Canada’s then-future Prime Minister, Paul Martin, dated 4 June 2003 and signed by 46 climate experts from 6 countries

Ross Gelbspan’s site ‘The Heat is Online

The Copenhagen Consensus Initiative of Denmark’s Environmental Assessment Institute - project on climate change

The Science & Environmental Policy Project

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (‘UNFCCC’)

United Nations Environmental Program (‘UNEP’) Climate Change page

Avery Poole is about to start her PhD in Political Science at the University of British Columbia. She hopes to publish some academic work soon, as her publications so far have been mostly cranky letters to the editor.

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