Today's date:
Summer 2002

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 in confusion.

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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