The Kyoto Protocol: Advantages and Limitations The advent of industrialized civilization has brought to us many remarkable feats that enhance our everyday lives. Such things as automobiles, airplanes, tractors, mainframe computers, and even relatively simple machines like lawnmowers have intertwined themselves into the everyday culture of modern day industrialized countries.. These products have provided us enormous benefits compared to the types of lives our ancestors used to live. In the eyes of some, the consequences of industrial activities that have evolved around the world will not pose any problems in the future, however as most have realized, this is not true. Contemporary production processes use fossil fuels such as oil, which release dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. In addition, certain products such as vehicles are notorious for their inefficient combustion cycles that also release comparable amounts of certain greenhouse gases into the air. Moreover, emissions from agricultural practices, land use change and forestry, and other industrial activities have led to dramatic increases in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases since pre-industrial times. (Fig. 1) The world was quick to act upon this realization by negotiating the Kyoto Protocol in December of 1997, the result of a process that began by a United Nations led conference in the early 90’s. Since then, the debate for ratification among the negotiating countries has been ongoing, for the simple fact that this policy has many advantages along with a reasonable amount of disadvantages.
The protocol itself calls for the thirty-eight industrialized countries to reduce their emission of six major greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent, from levels recorded in 1990, during the 2008-2012 period. These six gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (NO), hydrofluorocarbons (HFC’s), perfluorocarbons (PFC’s), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Combined, these gases greatly increase the ability of our atmosphere to trap the sun’s energy as it attempts exit past our ozone layer. This effect has been given the presently familiar name of Global Warming, and recent studies have shown that global temperatures have significantly increased duing the past decade, with a tremendous increase in the latest couple of years. (Fig.2 )
One insight that is often overlooked when determining the advantages of the Kyoto Protocol is the sense of urgency and cooperation that environmentally concerned political leaders around the world have implanted in us. No longer is global warming and the greenhouse effect near the end of powerful politicians’ agendas, rather it has now become a pressing issue both between nations and within the countries who debate whether or not to ratify the agreement. An upfront testament to this is the fact that there have been several meeting by the “Parties to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change,” including the seventh held between October 29 to November 9 in Marrakech, Morocco. We have thus witnessed a loose proposition on climate change developed almost a decade ago transform into the sophisticated, and highly technical policy that it is today.
In the realm of heavy power and politics, one could think that nations such as the United States and those of heavily industrialized Western Europe would control the basic structure of a policy such as the Kyoto Protocol. However, this is not the case, and this characteristic highlights another advantage the agreement holds. Developing nations, such as Hungary, Latvia, Poland, and the Ukraine are on equal footing with the largest of industrial nations. In today’s economic climate, countries who have more resource tend to gain an edge in how the world works, and the fact that nations whose economies are more or less in transition are as equally important as the U.S. and Western Europe on the issue of global warming exhibits the wonderful policy making procedures that developed the Kyoto Protocol. Furthermore, it seems as if developing nations are taking the initiative on correcting the world’s global warming problem. According to a presentation by the World Resources Institute:
Between 1990-91 and 1995-96, total fossil fuel subsidies in 14 developing countries that account for 25 percent of global carbon emissions from industrial sources declined 45 percent, from $60 billion to about $33 billion)…Within the past six years, India, Mexico, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, and Brazil also cut fossil fuel subsidies significantly…Many developing countries are also actively promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy.
As we can see, the sense of urgency of this policy has kindled some sort of energy revolution in the world’s developing nations. The Kyoto Protocol cannot perhaps be attributed with all the credit for this revolution, however it must have at the least given these nations a workable justification behind any changes that previously would have been unacceptable.
On the same note, the energy revolution spoken of above brings forth another advance in the ongoing global climate situation. The nature of the Kyoto Protocol calls for nations to increase research and eventually semi-convert their energy usage to accommodate for cleaner energy. Products such as solar power, wind power, biomass, geothermal power, and hydropower are now widely being studying to create processes that use less coal, oil, and natural gas in production. Altogether the results have achieved great success, and without doubt the most obvious example of this lies within our own borders. Cars in the United States contribute to a high percentage of the extraneous greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, and consequently current research is being done to create a more environmental friendly gas product for our nation’s cars; this product is of course ethanol. Ethanol is a high octane, liquid, domestic and renewable fuel produced by the fermentation of plant sugars. In the United States, ethanol is typically produced from corn and other grain products, although in the future it may be economically produced from other biomass resources such as agricultural and forestry wastes, or specially grown energy crops. Conventional fossil fuels unlock carbon that has been stored for millions of years, which disrupts the balance of earth’s carbon cycle. Ethanol, on the other hand, recycles carbon from accumulated biomass into the air, thus minimizing any adverse effects. Any ethanol product can traditionally be used in a way such that a car, for instance, would run on fuel that contained a certain mixture of ethanol and gasoline, nevertheless, carbon emissions would not cause as much damage as would one-hundred percent gasoline run vehicles.
Overall, the advantages of the Kyoto Protocol lie in its effect of instilling in society the need to change our current ways. The world as a whole has realized, manifested in the pages of the policy document, that we must work together to achieve our goals, and that current dynamics of energy consumption has put us on the path to complete environmental destruction. Despite these advantages, the protocol does display some disadvantages. These disadvantages, unlike the advantages, are more correlated with the actual specifications of the agreement rather than its assumptions and goals.
In the front line of controversy of the Kyoto Protocol is its proposal of “emissions trading mechanisms” by which an economic system of tradable emissions certificates would allow countries to buy extra emissions, per say, from those countries who have emitted below their allotted amount. In this scenario, each country is given a specific amount of emissions “tickets”, from which unused emissions can be traded to countries that have exceeded a certain amount of greenhouse emission standards. Limitations to this model are obvious. Firstly, the introduction of these certificates can be likened to a creation a new trillion-dollar money market, and with this mechanism involves the hammering out of technical financial responsibilities and transaction procedures. Black markets are inevitable, as corruption becomes an increasing factor. In addition, the trading of emissions rights could become so money oriented that concentration will shift from actual progress in emissions reduction.
Furthermore the question arises, who has the right to emit and who doesn’t on a per capita basis? This type of question is yet to be formalized in the Kyoto Protocol. Some developing nations have conjectured that the targets should be based on a pre-set per capita emissions level, arguing that this is the most equitable and enduring system because all citizens of the world should have the same 'right' to emit. However, by giving everyone the same allowance on emissions, the industrialized countries who labored to develop a high standard of living might witness "a wealth transfer from developed countries to developing countries on a scale that [they] are unlikely to accept."
Another pitfall of the Kyoto Protocol involves its discussion of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which provides a system where industrialized nations would finance technological development in underdeveleoped nations, in an attempt to cut emissions, while receiving domestic credit. This does in fact sound like a reasonable idea on the outset. By looking at the mechanisms by which this could become a successful procedure, it is quickly recognizable that a large amount of standards must be set forthright before investment into technological advancement could take place. Important questions such as: Who deserves x amount of money? How should this dollar, yen, or pound be spent? What governing body shall regulate the rate at which this specific industrial activity should be funded in order to improve its efficiency? All these questions must be answered for the policy to attain any clout regarding its mechanisims for greenhous gas reduction.
It seems as if all the downfalls of the Kyoto Protocol represent incomplete formalizations to the procedures that have been decided upon. Regardless, however, these formalizations or rules are necessary for any of its models to succeed in reducing global greenhouse emissions, and for acquiring the trust and cooperation of the nations that ratify the policy proposal. In any case however, the agreement has engaged humankind to think about the consequences of our activities. This engagement and the tough political battles that we have so far endured can be credited to the proposal itself, for it is a manifestation of our awakened state or environmental responsibility. Despite the disadvantages that are contained within the specifics of the policy, we should be grateful that in an age of enormous industrial capacity and inflated standards of living, that we as humans have realized our responsibility to care for an environment which has nurtured our very being. The Kyoto Protocl, therefore, can be regarded as a symbol of our first step in the right direction.