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Pricking the global conscience
Dec 14th 2005
From The Economist print edition
A UN conference on global warming makes progress, sort of
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JEAN CHR�TIEN, a former prime minister of Canada, described his
country's relationship with its giant southern neighbour as like
sleeping with an elephant. It was, he observed, good to have a few
others around to watch the elephant as well. An important United
Nations (UN) conference on climate change, which has just concluded
in Montreal, showed just how right he was.
For two weeks, negotiators from nearly every country in the world
converged on the frozen Canadian metropolis to discuss the future of
the Kyoto protocol. That controversial UN pact obliges many
industrialised countries (but notably not the United States) to cut
their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by a fixed amount below
their 1990 levels by 2012. The treaty's 150-odd signatories had hoped
to map a rough outline of what should come after the treaty's first
In the event, the American delegation strenuously opposed them,
insisting that it was too early to contemplate life after Kyoto.
Then, in shockingly undiplomatic language, Paul Martin, Canada's
prime minister, denounced the American position and invoked the need
for a "global conscience" to deal with this most global of problems.
America's chief negotiator stormed off in a huff, throwing the
meeting into chaos. The talks looked destined to fail. Then something
odd happened that persuaded the elephant to dance.
Canada's friends came to the rescue at the last minute. Defying
expectations, China, the biggest GHG emitter not to have an emissions
target, and Australia, which also rejected the Kyoto treaty, agreed
to talk about talks. Then Bill Clinton delivered a clever last-minute
speech suggesting that the Bush administration's position on climate
change is out of touch with the sentiments of many Americans and with
the actions of the many American states and corporations that are
already cutting GHG emissions.
Finding itself isolated, the American delegation reluctantly returned
to the negotiating table�and, after an all-night session, a
compromise deal was announced on December 10th.
Life after Kyoto
The final pact is not quite the "historic agreement" some green
groups claim, but it does, nonetheless, make progress in three broad
areas. First, the signatories to Kyoto agreed on fiddly details
essential for the implementation of the pact. For example, they
accepted compliance rules that set out what happens if countries do
not meet their targets. They also agreed on ways to improve the
treaty's overly bureaucratic mechanism for rich countries to gain
credits for reducing GHGs in developing ones and in former Soviet
Second, they agreed that future climate talks should take twin
tracks. First, Kyoto signatories will now start negotiations on what
binding emissions targets the rich countries of "Kyotoland" must
accept for the second commitment period. These negotiations must be
completed in time to ensure that there is no gap between the first
round and what follows.
Second, everyone�including America�agreed to start talks on a
possible UN climate pact that would include America and China. This
is not as big a breakthrough as it might seem, for the American
delegation insisted that mandatory emissions targets must not be part
of these discussions. Even so, it represents progress of a sort, and
it creates a UN process through which a post-Bush America could take
on meaningful emissions targets.
The final, and largely overlooked, outcome of the conference may yet
prove its most important: delegates agreed to promote carbon capture
and sequestration technologies, and to get serious about adaptation
to climate change.
Carbon sequestration matters because the world cannot simultaneously
meet its energy needs and climate goals without developing
technologies for using the vast global reserves of coal in ways that
do not contribute to global warming.
Adaptation matters because even if future rounds of Kyoto succeed in
bringing America on board, many aspects of global warming are already
inevitable. The sea level, for example, will continue to rise for
decades to come, with awkward consequences for much of humanity,
especially in the poorest parts of the world.
The Montreal summit therefore deserves credit for bringing America
back into the UN's climate negotiations. However, its enduring legacy
may be greater still if it results in serious efforts around the
world to adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change.