STOCKHOLM, Sweden – With few exceptions, the world’s big industrialized nations are struggling to meet the greenhouse gas reductions they committed to in the embattled Kyoto pact on climate change.
Europe is veering off course, Japan is still far from its target, and Canada has given up.
The latest figures of heat-trapping gases spewing out of chimneys and tailpipes are grim news for the agreement’s supporters and welcome ammunition for the told-you-so camp in such non-Kyoto nations as the United States and Australia.
“I think there was entirely too much blue-sky optimistic economic estimates that came out of the pro-Kyoto planning departments,” said longtime critic Kenneth Green, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
“It’s becoming clear that the U.S. policy, which was based on harder-headed economic analyses, is being borne out by what other countries are experiencing.”
Pro-Kyoto activists dismiss such conclusions, saying the targets are within reach if nations just try a bit harder.
The U.N. climate treaty’s Kyoto Protocol, negotiated in that Japanese city in 1997 and effective as of last year, calls for an average 5 percent drop in greenhouse emissions by 2012 from the base year 1990. At a treaty conference next month in Nairobi, Kenya, the Kyoto nations will discuss cutbacks beyond 2012.
A broad scientific consensus agrees that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the atmosphere. How quickly and badly the climate will be disrupted remains an unsettled question.
The United States, the world’s biggest greenhouse generator, dropped out of the Kyoto accord, complaining it would hurt the U.S. economy, and that such big-polluter developing nations as China and India were not included.
Other nations decided to forge ahead regardless, and the latest U.N. figures show that as a group the 36 countries committed to the pact can meet the 5 percent target. That progress came mainly from a one-time boost in the 1990s, however, when ex-communist states of Eastern Europe cut greenhouse emissions dramatically by shutting down or modernizing heavy-polluting Soviet-era industries.
Elsewhere, the situation is more dire.
Yvo De Boer, head of the U.N.’s climate change secretariat, said industrialized countries needed to “take a lot of action at home” to meet their targets.
“But fortunately they do still have a number of years to meet those targets because in a number of cases it’s not going to be easy,” he said.
Among the worst off is Canada, the current president of U.N. climate change talks, which this year became the first country to announce it would not meet its Kyoto target of a 6 percent emissions cut on average over the years 2008-2012. Canada’s emissions have ballooned by 29 percent instead.
With oil production growing in the tar sands of Alberta, the Conservative government saw no other option than to jump the Kyoto ship. Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has stated interest in a rival, U.S.-led pact, the Asia-Pacific Partnership, which has no targets, and said the government was working on a “made-in-Canada” solution.
Japan, too, has a long way to go to meet its 6 percent reduction. If no additional measures are taken, U.N. forecasts show Japan’s emissions will grow by 6 percent, instead of shrink by the same rate as mandated by the treaty.
Aiko Takemoto, an official at the Environment Ministry’s climate change division, noted that the bulk of increased emissions came during the 1990s and emissions are forecast to fall over the coming years.
He said the government’s Kyoto Achievement Plan implemented last year will help Japan achieve the target rates by 2012.
It calls for conserving energy, cutting carbon emissions in other ways, improving the efficiency of emissions-free nuclear power plants, and investing in forest projects that are “carbon sinks,” absorbers of carbon dioxide.
The impact of this new, more aggressive approach will be measured and assessed between now and 2008, at which point the government will take stiffer measures, Takemoto said.
Japanese utilities, other industries and the government are also buying “carbon credits” in the developing world, where emissions cuts in industrial or agricultural projects can be credited against the Kyoto countries’ targets.
“We are sure that we will achieve the target,” Takemoto said. “If we judge that the present plan is not enough, we will introduce more stringent measures. We won’t give up.”
The government has also introduced low-tech solutions, such as asking workers to leave their ties at home to cut down on air conditioning during hot summer months.
The European Union, perhaps the biggest champion of the Kyoto pact, is doing better. But even here, the latest statistics are cause for concern.
The EU believes it can meet its target of cutting emissions by 8 percent by 2012, but only with the full implementation of an emissions trading scheme and two big “ifs.”
First, countries including Germany and France must introduce environmental policies that are currently only in the planning stages. Second, many must make full use of carbon credits for investing in clean technology projects in developing countries.
The European Environment Agency said greenhouse emissions increased by 18 million tons, or 0.4 percent, between 2003 and 2004 in the 25-member bloc.
Spain was the biggest offender, releasing 19.7 million tons more greenhouse gases in 2004 than the year before.
But there are a few bright spots.
Britain, which has benefited from a switch from coal-powered plants to natural gas, and Sweden are predicted to meet their targets with current policies.
The Swedes even expect to overachieve on their Kyoto target, which allows for an emissions increase of 4 percent.
“Sweden has chosen more ambitious goals than our commitments under the Kyoto agreement: Greenhouse gas emissions will go down by 4 percent by 2010 and 25 percent by 2030,” former Environment Minister Lena Sommestad said.
It is not clear whether Sweden’s new center-right government, which took office Oct. 6, will stick to that goal, but it has said it is committed to Sweden’s target under Kyoto.
Kyoto supporters say Sweden’s success should serve as an example for the laggards because it has introduced environmentally friendly policies while keeping the economy rolling: Gross domestic product grew 5.5 percent in the second quarter.
“The answers are out there and the measures are out there,” said Catherine Pearce of Friends of the Earth. “Kyoto is in fact working.”