Indebted to one another – The Kyoto Protocol and greenhouse gas emissions

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2007

There is a scene in the recent TV docudrama on the last days of Robert Maxwell in which he tells his Board he is not worried by a £4 billion debt to the bank because his arch rival Rupert Murdoch owes £10 billion. A Board member bravely expresses the view that such a debt has the advantage that, at that level, the banks fortunes are tied into the success of the company so they are less likely to allow it to go bust. Maxwell agreed, but borrowing excessively may have generated too much stress - shortly afterwards he mysteriously fell off his yacht and drowned. Suicide was suspected.

If one owes much more than can possibly be repaid, this can produce bizarre reactions, such as denying the existence of the debt or claiming that the monies do not have to be paid back. Something like this is happening with the debt the developed nations owe to the Third World (and future generations) to compensate for the global warming we have generated by contaminating the Earth's atmosphere with greenhouse gases. A disproportionate part of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, from 280ppm in 1860 to over 380ppm today, is the result of industrial activity and the high standard of living of the developed world.

The Kyoto Protocol and benefits of climate change

The only international collective activity that covers this is the Kyoto Protocol, which requires participating countries to reduce their carbon emissions by an overall average of 5.2% within the period 1990 to 2012. America has less than five per cent of the world population but produces more than 20% of the greenhouse gases, yet it has refused to ratify the Protocol and has hinted that the dangers of global warming have been exaggerated.

More recently, the benefits of climate change have been stressed. In the 16-23 April double issue of the American magazine, Newsweek, entitled ‘Living with global warming', much is made of the fact that in Russia the Siberian tundra will turn into fertile prairie. What they do not mention is that the west Siberian bog alone, which has already started to melt, is believed to contain 70 billion tons of methane which, if released, is equivalent to 73 years worth of current global man-made carbon dioxide emissions. Paradoxically, in spite of the fact that burning of fossilised fuel has created the problem, another advantage they claim is that the retreating Arctic sea ice will make accessible further oil and gas deposits!

The USA also objected that the Kyoto Protocol did not include restrictions on developing countries. Columnist Fareed Zakaria has calculated that in the period covered by the Protocol (1990-2012) China and India will have built almost 800 new coal-fired power plants and the total carbon dioxide emissions from these will exceed, by a factor of five, the total carbon dioxide mandated by the Protocol. Each year, China constructs electrical power plants almost equivalent to Britain's installed capacity, and China now consumes more coal than the combined total of America, Europe and Japan.

Where does Britain stand? Currently we only contribute about two per cent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, so quantitatively there is little we can do. Recalling that we started the industrial revolution, we have a special obligation to do all we can to mitigate the effects of global warming. The European Union has responded positively to this threat and Tony Blair has been active in this area. One can only hope that Gordon Brown will pick up this particular baton.


Further information:

The Kyoto Protocol