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What Does the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change Imply for the Future

by Bert Richard Johannes Bolin

The author is the former chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the recipient of the 1998 AAAS International Scientific Cooperation Award. This speech was delivered at the CAIP Annual Luncheon Meeting on February 15th during the 1998 AAAS Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, PA

The agreement reached in Kyoto regarding an expected human-induced change of climate has set the stage for some actions to be taken by the Parties of the Convention during the next 10-15 years. The Protocol that was agreed is, however, not likely to enter into force for quite some time yet. A good number of the major countries will first have to get it ratified, which may be a difficult process in several countries, not the least in the U.S.

The scientific conclusions, that have been reached by the IPCC so far, were accepted as the basis for the negotiations. The skeptical attitudes stemming from a few scientists in U.S. and Europe, which were also promulgated by lobby organizations to countries dependent on fossil fuel exports as well as energy-intensive industries, had some but limited influence on the outcome of the negotiations.

The crucial issue rather became the negotiations of a burden-sharing scheme between countries, that could be accepted by all Parties. In retrospect it is unclear how well this really was achieved. Principles for how to interpret the concept must be worked out to avoid rather ad-hoc decisions as some of those reached in Kyoto. Several issues were left unresolved and will come up for further negotiations at the next meeting of the Convention in November this year. In the meantime technical analyses are required and the IPCC is called upon to assist in clarifying some such issues.

The inertia of the climate system as well as the global socio-economic systems has hardly been considered adequately in setting the targets for 2010. These are indeed modest and the expected increase of the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is going to be only slightly below what would be expected under the assumption of business as usual.

The IPCC released is fourth Technical paper, The Regional Impacts of Climate Change, merely a month before the Kyoto meeting. Even though it contains much pertinent information, it is not possible yet to tell more precisely the implications of permitting the carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to rise further. Such information are necessary to get acceptance of more far-reaching measures and will be given high priority by the IPCC in its next assessment to be ready in 2001. It is certainly most important to study carefully the successive changes of climate as they evolve during the next decade.

The IPCC has pointed out specifically that substantial reductions of greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved at no or modest costs. How this could be best taken advantage of will require detailed analysis at national levels. Deliberate efforts of that kind are a present under way only in few countries.

A “clean development mechanism” was introduced in the Kyoto Protocol. It might clarify how to assist developing countries in their efforts to become full-fledged partners in the efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and simultaneously aim of sustainable development.

The fact that an agreement was reached, although not as yet very far-reaching, may stimulate the more progressive and innovative part of industry to find business opportunities to exploit. This would be a sound, as a matter of fact necessary, development and might pave the way for economical instruments also to be used in future programs for mitigation rather than primarily regulations. The climate issue can only be resolved in co-operation with industry. Such a development will, however require great care in the development of a market situation that is fair in view of the great differences between people and countries in the world with regard to economic status and influence.

Pictures from the event