The Double Face of the Kyoto Protocol
The stage of the Johannesburg Summit will hopefully be
used for celebrating the completed ratification process of the Kyoto Protocol.
After about a decade of tortuous negotiations, this will finally be a
major achievement of the Rio process. For the first time, the international
community-with the notable exception of the US-enters legally binding
commitments to respond to emergent bio-physical limits to growth on such
a scale. Institutional and legal mechanisms are now in place which enable
governments to steer the global economy toward a different path. In other
words, tools for collective action are ready now.
However, the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is a success in process
rather than in results. For the emissions of industrial countries show
no sign of declining from their destructively high levels; even if all
the commitments of the protocol were fulfilled, it is dubious whether
in the end there would be any real reduction of carbon emissions from
the 1990 level. How to eat the cake and have it too has been the concern
of too many countries. They were out to appear climate-friendly, yet at
a minimum cost for the economy back home. Three strategies have been used
for attaining a climate regime that pretends to show the way to a post-fossil
economy, while still embracing the fossil economy.
First, the North assumes obligations, but then passes the buck to the
South and East. "Geographical flexibility" is the notion which
ties instruments such as emissions trading, joint implementation, and
the Clean Development Mechanism together. The "polluter pays"
principle has been turned into a "polluter buys his way out"
principle. Decarbonization will not really take place in this manner since
the resource base of Northern economies is not being restructured.
Second, the North assumes obligations, but discharges them through the
extension of carbon sinks. Industrial economies can be shielded against
change by shifting action to the enlargement of the Earth's absorptive
capacities. In other words, more forests rather than less emissions. This
hardly helps the climate, not only because of the missing reform, but
because measurements of storage capacity are scientifically hazardous.
In the end, the complexity trap snaps shut, and any accountability drowns
Third, the climate negotiations focus on regulating emissions and not
on changing inputs. They mainly aim at containing the fallout of carbon
dioxide but fail to deal with the volume of carbon-intensive inputs in
the first place. They seek to intervene downstream and not upstream in
the production cycle. While emissions are measured and counted, monitored
and managed, the fossil-intensive model of development as such remains
largely unquestioned. Under the convention, nobody can speak about limiting
the exploration of new oil fields, about regulating energy corporations,
about implementing standards for low-input automobiles, or even about
launching campaigns to give a boost to solar-based technologies and practices.
It is for this reason that the discussion on climate policy is largely
separated from the discussion on sustainable development. International
climate policy is framed in a way that the rules and interests driving
economic growth are not really put into discussion.
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