Climate Change: A Familiar Story From Kyoto

In August of last year, analysing the Earth II Summit, we hinted that nothing much should be expected from the December 1997 Conference on Climatic Change which was to be held in Kyoto, Japan.

Judging by the pessimistic headlines that carried news of the Conference’s closure, it would seem we were again proved right.

The Guardian, London, on 12 December, for instance, announced: “Kyoto Deal Leaves US Free to Pollute”, and the story was the dominant one to emerge from the talks.

After hundreds of hours of arguing, the 10,000 who attended the conference from 160 countries agreed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent over the next 15 years. The compromise basically involved the cutting of such gases by 38 leading industrial countries-the developing nations being under no obligation to reduce emissions-the European Union by 8 percent, the U.S.A. (the world’s biggest polluter) by 7 percent and Japan by 6 percent.

Long before the compromise had been reached there was evidence of its hollow echo, with U.S.A. congressmen, representing coal, iron and steel interests, intimating they would scupper any treaty by voting to oppose it when it comes up for ratification by Congress later this year.

Similar fears were echoed by Japanese officials who pointed out that the fuel lobby can assert considerable influence on Japanese governmental decisions.

Moreover, critics have pointed to one clause of the agreement-the trading of emissions quotas-which would enable the U.S.A. to make no cuts at all, and perhaps even increase emissions. Impoverished countries would be all too tempted to sell portions of their quota on emissions to countries such as the US where powerful fuel interests care more for short-term profit than the long-term damage to the environment. In short, this clause-and one the US insisted was included before they would agree to anything-is a loophole designed to let Western corporate elites buy their way out of the obligation to cut emissions.

What becomes of the brave words spoken at Kyoto when the time comes for the promises to be implemented is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain. We can not expect obligations to be met so long as there are profits to be made.

Perhaps Michael Meacher, British Environment Minister, said it all when he complained: “We in the EU cannot be expected to reduce our emissions more than our competitors” ( The Guardian, 10 December 1997). Need we say more?

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