Insomnia that saved the planet?

The Kyoto Protocol
July 7, 2000

The gavel is not a technology that first comes to mind as an instrument for saving the world from the horrors of global warming. But it had its place in the early hours of December 11 1997. And the way it was wielded by Raul Estrada - an obscure Argentine diplomat who knew his hour had come to grasp a place in history - forms the centrepiece of this admirable volume on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

As the sun rose that morning over Japan's ancient capital, the portly man from the other side of the world without a wink of sleep in 72 hours had successfully completed a breathtaking piece of what many delegates called "negotiation by exhaustion". His style was blunt and decisive. As Sebastian Oberthur and Hermann Ott, who were there, put it:

"Whenever discussions did not lead to agreement on an issue, he took a decision on behalf of the assembly" - and defied anyone to assemble a two-thirds majority to overturn it. Bleary brained through lack of sleep and with planes to catch, nobody did.

It was "one of the most exciting nights of international environmental diplomacy", say the authors. Well, there was more sleeping than boogying on the conference floor that night. But as nights of international environmental diplomacy go, it was a gripping occasion. Not least because we really did think we were helping to save the world.

The deal could all unravel later this year when, in The Hague in November,nations must return to the conference table to resolve the labyrinthine complications introduced in Kyoto to the simple idea of national emissions targets for greenhouse gases. And there remains the small matter of whether, a few days before that meeting, the United States will elect a president and Congress willing to ratify the deal. (US acquiescence is not formally essential, but for the country emitting a quarter of greenhouse gases not to sign would be a disaster.) For the story so far, this book is a scholarly but readable must. Perhaps particularly so for scientists wanting to get to grips with the complications of law, economics, politics and diplomacy that they unleashed when they first began warning about climate change.

The book has three parts. The first covers the ins and outs of negotiations up to and including Kyoto. The power blocs and personalities are explained as well as the legal and diplomatic process. Heroes emerge. One is Angela Merkel, the young German environment minister and former chemistry professor whose "shuttle diplomacy" saved early negotiations in Berlin from disaster. Another is our own John Prescott - much traduced at home these days but a barnstorming force in Kyoto. And even US vice-president Al Gore, who opened the door to an agreement there when he turned up with a sheaf of hostile clippings filed by the US press corps in Kyoto and instructed his negotiators to tone down their strident position and get real.

But above all there was Estrada. No conventional diplomat, he. An expansive and voluble figure, with a firm hand on his gavel and an ability to go without sleep for several nights on the trot, he was not above lashing delegations he did not approve of from the chair. As the authors relate, he roundly rebuked the Saudis in Kyoto when they asked that no deal be struck before a thorough investigation of the possible impacts on developing countries of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by the industrialised world. This, of course, was a coded whinge about the likelihood of a contracting market for oil, but designed to find common cause with poorer brethren. Past chairmen had indulged such two-faced nonsense. Estrada noted sharply that he "did not recall anyone talking about the effect on developing countries when Opec raised oil prices 20 years ago", and moved on.

Part two covers the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol itself. The heart of this is national targets for reduced emissions from developed countries between 1990 and 2010, but supplemented by a complex network of "flexibility mechanisms". These were introduced largely at the behest of the US, to make meeting the targets cheaper and "more efficient". They allow countries to emit more if they plant forests or even perhaps change farming techniques in order to soak up the difference. They also allow countries to sell any spare rights to pollute to other countries unable to meet their targets. Britain for one believes it will be able to overshoot its reduction target by some way, through a mixture of energy efficiency gains and the fortuitous switch from burning coal to natural gas in the 1990s. It estimates it will be able to make a profit of some $100 million in the process. Other countries, such as Russia, may achieve something similar as a result of the post-1990 collapse of industry.

The flexibility mechanisms also allow countries with reduction targets to claim "carbon credits" (redeemable against further pollution) for investing in a variety of greenhouse-friendly measures in developing countries. They might pay for planting carbon-sink forests, installing solar panels or improving the efficiency of power grids. This carrot of development aid for poor countries, first proposed by the Brazilians, became a key building block in the Kyoto agreement, bringing many poor nations on side.

Part three looks forward. It tackles the complex issues of how the climate agreement could clash with other international deals on everything from world trade to halting desertification. Above all, it warns that the long journey back from the brink of a climatic Armageddon has only just begun. There is hope in the new cleaner paths to development already evident in countries without formal targets, notably China. But there is profound worry in the warnings of scientists that cuts in global emissions of a half or more will be necessary in the coming decades to halt the inexorable accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. If Oberthur and Ott stay on the case, a second volume is almost assured.

Fred Pearce is a freelance writer specialising in environmental subjects.

The Kyoto Protocol: International Climate Policy for the 21st Century

Author - Sebastian Oberthur
ISBN - 3 540 66470 X
Publisher - Springer
Price - £37.50
Pages - 359

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