The Road From Marakesh
Let’s face it: while the Kyoto climate treaty may be arguably the most important story on the planet’s future, it can be stupefyingly dull. Barring live footage of the world actually ending, it may be hard to interest producers and editors.
Worse yet: straight talk is almost impossible to come by when Kyoto is involved. Everybody you interview seems to have an axe to grind, and they all seem to talk in code words, euphemisms, and epithets.
But climate change and international efforts to address it -- via Kyoto or not -- are worth covering because they affect your audience and your audience’s children and grandchildren. They affect people’s health, jobs, and quality of life, and they affect farms, forests, and fisheries.
And it’s important for reporters to keep trying to make sense of the climate change story, because if they do not, the field will be left entirely to spinners and special interests.
Finally there’s news there: something happening and a story to tell. After the Bush administration dropped out of the Kyoto treaty, some 160 other nations brought it back from its prematurely reported death by reaching a breakthrough agreement November 10 in Marrakesh. Now all eyes are returning to the adminstration -- to see when it will come up with its promised alternative proposal, what form that will take, and whether the experience of building an anti-terror coalition will soften the go-it-alone foreign policy.
1. How will climate change affect the area where you live? While predictions about local effects are the least certain, vulnerabilities are often obvious and well-understood. What does your area’s "Regional Assessment" say? What’s the update?
2. How will the United States relate to the "Kyoto treaty" -- or the broader international negotiating process under the "Framework Convention on Climate Change"? When will the current administration come up with a proposal and what will that proposal be?
3. Is the seemingly significant warming that has been observed during recent decades in the global average temperature a result of human action or not? How much is random variation, how much is known climate cycles, and how much truly man-made? What are the ways of knowing? What evidence is available? What is the level of certainty, and has it been growing or shrinking? Finally, what is the wisest course of action in light of what is and is not known?
4. How much do people really care about the future? Economists use a concept called the "discount rate" to compare the value of a dollar in-hand today with the value of a dollar a decade or a century in the future. When industry groups say controlling climate change is too expensive, what assumptions are they making about discount rates? Are they talking about the costs to their shareholders or the costs to society?
5. If the electric utilities serving your area generate their own power, what mix of fuels do they use, and what are the greenhouse emissions? If they buy it from wholesalers, the same question applies, but consumers may have a choice of supplier. Do any suppliers offer "green" energy?
6. When were the coal-burning power plants in your area built, and how long can they be expected to last? What are the plans for repowering them at the end of their useful life?
7. Do any companies in your area build or sell climate-friendly power sources or vehicles? What opportunities would they have under the Kyoto climate treaty for making money in other countries?
Background and Context
After more than a decade of scientific consensus-forming under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there remains little doubt that if human emissions keep raising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, the global average surface temperature will within decades begin to rise by several degrees centigrade. Most believe this warming has already begun.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a diplomatic process that began at the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio, yielded in 1997 the Kyoto Climate Accords, which for the first time would have committed some industrialized nations to specific reductions in their emissions of six greenhouse gases by specific deadlines. The Kyoto accords have not yet been ratified by the United States.
On November 10, 2001, UNFCCC nations meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, agreed on a further set of accords detailing rules for implementing the Kyoto agreement.
Most of the greenhouse warming effect comes from carbon dioxide, and most of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come from western industrialized nations as they burn coal and petroleum for energy. Even today, the quarter of the world’s population living in industrialised countries consumes about 80 percent of the world’s energy.
This is why developing nations feel that it is only fair that industrialized nations, who have by and large caused the climate problem, should bear the brunt of responsibility for fixing it. They say the industrialized nations have emitted those gases while attaining their higher standard of living, and do not think it is fair for well-off nations to tell them they can not strive for better lives themselves.
But fossil-fuel and energy-intensive industries in the United States feel it is unfair to ask them to bear so much of the burden. In mid-1997, before U.S. negotiators headed to Kyoto, they got the U.S. Senate to adopt the "Byrd Resolution," S. Res. 98, expressing the sense of the Senate that the United States should not enter into a climate treaty mandating emission reductions unless developing nations made similar commitments. It passed 95-0.
The Framework Convention was adopted during the first Bush administration, and the Kyoto treaty was negotiated for the United States by the Clinton administration. But the current administration, under George W. Bush, declared in early 2001 that it was abandoning the Kyoto agreement.
The Kyoto treaty will enter into force when 55 nations have ratified it, providing those nations include "Annex I" (developed and former Soviet) countries which accounted for at least 55 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions in 1990. [Because the United States emits about 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, this makes it hard for Kyoto to take effect without the United States.]
The industrialized and former Soviet nations would commit themselves under Kyoto to collectively reducing their overall emissions of greenhouse gases by at least 5 percent below 1990 levels in the "commitment period" of 2008 to 2012.
At Kyoto, different reduction levels were set for different industrialized nations. The treaty would commit the United States to reductions of 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Most European countries would have an 8 percent reduction target.
The treaty allowed trading of emission reductions -- so that one nation could partially meet its target by buying reduction credits from another nation which could achieve equivalent reductions more cheaply. The treaty also allowed for "Joint Implementation," and a "Clean Development Mechanism," under which industrialized countries could get partial credit toward their reduction targets by funding installation of relatively climate-friendly energy technologies in developing countries.
The agreements reached in Marrakesh involved detailed rules for implementing the Kyoto treaty, and "consequences" for nations who fail to achieve their Kyoto targets.
Observers believe the Marrakesh agreement paves the way for most industrialized nations to ratify the treaty in 2002. To date about 40 nations have ratified it, but only two industrialized countries, Romania and the Czech Republic, are among them.
The "consequences" formula agreed to by Marrakesh negotiators for nations failing to meet Kyoto emissions-reduction targets was that they would have to meet those targets later -- with a 30 percent additional cut added on. Some doubt apparently remains as to its legal force.
Marrakesh delegates also agreed on more detailed rules for emissions trading, Clean Development Mechanism, and Joint Implementation. They limited the ability of industrialized countries to claim credit for carbon "sinks" (such as carbon-dioxide-absorbing forests) by forbidding the banking of such credits for use in future commitment periods. But they nearly doubled the credits Russia can claim for its forestry sinks.
Sources and Players
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group I. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. http://www.ipcc.ch/
- United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. http://www.unfccc.de/
- International Institute for Sustainable Development. Publisher of Earth Negotiations Bulletin, which while pro-Kyoto in its slant, is one of the few free publications systematically covering the climate treaty. http://www.iisd.ca/voltoc.html, http://www.iisd.ca/linkages/climate/ba/perspectives.html, and http://www.iisd.ca/climate/index.html. ENB published an exhaustive summary of the Marrakesh accords at http://www.iisd.ca/linkages/vol12/enb12189e.html
- Congressional Research Service, Report for Congress 98-2: Global Climate Change Treaty: The Kyoto Protocol. http://cnie.org/NLE/CRSreports/Climate/clim-3.cfm
- World Wildlife Fund’s Climate Change Campaign offers an environmentalist perspective on the Kyoto treaty and Marrakesh accords at http://www.panda.org/climate/.
- For an opposing viewpoint, see the Web site of the Cooler Heads Coalition, at http://www.globalwarming.org/. That group is affiliated with the
- National Consumer Coalition and a number of other groups with pro-business, free-market ideologies, many funded by fossil-fuel and energy-intensive industries.
- President George W. Bush, June 11, 2001, remarks on climate policy: http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/06/20010611-2.html
Reprinted with permission. Published in Environment Writer newsletter November 2001, by the National Safety Council's Environmental Health Center.