Monday June 02, 2003


Brian Fallow: Time to focus beyond Kyoto

15.05.2003 -

The Kyoto Protocol has absorbed the world's attention for much too long, says Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"There is an opportunity cost to that. We have lost a clear focus on the long-term problem of climate change and what should be done to solve it," he said in an address to the Energy Federation of New Zealand and the Institution of Professional Engineers in Wellington last Friday.

While the Kyoto Protocol was important, it would not be the end of the world if it did not come into force, Pachauri said. The protocol would come into force if, but only if, Russia ratified it.

But since the United States and Australia had declined to ratify it, the arithmetic of Kyoto had changed to the extent that the remaining countries with commitments could meet their targets by buying hot air and forest sink credits and not reducing emissions of greenhouse gases at all, he said.

"Hot air" is jargon for the carbon credits or tradable rights to emit greenhouse gases which eastern European countries will have to sell. Because 1990 is the baseline for Kyoto obligations and because so many smokestacks in the former Soviet Union have gone cold since then, Russian and the other successor countries have credits to sell for the drop in emissions since then.

Forest sink credits arise under a Kyoto provision that recognises that plantation forests established on land not previously forested, while they are growing, are withdrawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

New Zealand expects to have more forest sink credits than it would need to cover the increase in its emissions since 1990.

In practice, however, Pachauri believes the Kyoto countries will implement domestic action plans that deliver some emission reductions. Public opinion would not allow Governments to just buy their way to compliance.

Pachauri said it was more likely than not that the protocol would come into force and it was time to focus where we should go beyond Kyoto.

"The world has to agree on target greenhouse gas concentration levels," Pachauri said.

"I would like to think that when negotiations begin in 2005 [on commitments for Kyoto's second commitment period, beyond 2012] the first thing they concentrate on is this set of issues. Otherwise we might just get tokenism."

But Pachauri told theHerald that it was not for the panel to define where the danger level in greenhouse gas concentrations lies, even though it was under pressure from some Governments to do so.

"That is a value judgment. All the IPCC can do is try to assess the vulnerability of specific systems, the Arctic for example or coral reefs, to specific levels of climate change. If we can provide that to policy makers and negotiators it is up to them to define what is dangerous," he said.

"If you are a small island in the Pacific you would probably say we have already crossed that threshold of dangerous. If you are living in a coastal area where salinity has gone up you would probably have a similar view."

The IPCC's world had to be policy-relevant but not policy-prescriptive, Pachauri said.

It was always at risk of shoot-the-messenger attacks from those who had a political position against doing anything about climate change.

"As the whole debate on climate change gets heated, as the stakes get higher, I suspect the IPCC will become more of a whipping boy."

Its next comprehensive report, the fourth, is due in 2007.

In addition to updating the scientific work which drives the whole process, it would have more of a focus on the regional impacts of climate change, Pachauri said.

It would also focus more on adaptation - living with climate change - as well as mitigation, trying to reduce it.

Such was the inertia in the global climate, changes arising from emissions which had already occurred would be felt for hundreds of years, no matter what was done now to reduce further emissions.

"So we need to understand what the impacts are going to be and what the adaptation possibilities are," Pachauri said.

Expect more focus, too, on the socio-economic impacts of climate change. For Pachauri, who has doctorates in economics and engineering, this is familiar ground.

"Coming from India I know what the impact of receding glaciers in the Himalayas would be. The water supply for about half a billion people is at stake. Likewise, if sea-level rise inundates 20 to 25 per cent of Bangladesh that would cause a major upheaval in the entire subcontinent."

President George W. Bush, when he pulled the US out of Kyoto, cited among other reasons the fact that developing countries had no obligations to limit emissions, even though they would probably overtake developed country emissions within 20 years.

Pachauri said the language in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which speaks of a "common but differentiated response", recognised that climate change was the legacy of historic emissions, not emissions which take place today.

"Nor can we lose sight of the reality that about 2 billion people don't have access to modern energy devices. That mass of humanity is behaving exactly as their ancestors have for hundreds of years. So there is an equity issue here that cannot be ignored," he said.

But as global citizens, he said, developing countries would not be serving their own interests if they took an obdurate stance and said they were not going to do anything about climate change.

Herald Feature: Climate change

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