Connect with us


Carbon politics: ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in the US and China



Gerald Kutney picks out some of the highlights from his upcoming book, Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, to be published by Routledge in January 2014. In this third of the series of five instalments, he provides an overview of the third chapter.

The US has generally been a reluctant member of the international community in the climate change discussions, as carbon targets were viewed as being detrimental to its economy. And even when it did participate, the Americans were a disruptive force in the discussions.

The traditional blocking mechanism was put forth by the government:  more research on the science and economics of climate change was needed before any legally-binding decisions could be considered.  The ‘paralysis-by-analysis’ strategy on climate change by US administrations has worked for three decades (and we are now into a fourth).

The interaction between climate change science and US politics goes back to the Eisenhower era. The Reagan administration had done its best to slow down any climate change treaty progress, which was more forcibly opposed by George Bush Sr.

The negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol took place during the administration of Bill Clinton, with Al Gore as his vice-president. The US position was already untenable as the deadline for Kyoto approached. And Congress was at war with the president over the negotiations.

So how did a group of the leading negotiators in the world end up in such a mess? Despite placating Congress with rhetoric about being committed to achieving emissions targets for developing nations, the White House pursued a separate agenda.

We can trace the failure of climate change policy back to the White House objective of joint implementation and the related flexible mechanisms, whereby an emissions-reduction project in a foreign country could be claimed by a nation within Annex I of the Protocol; in other words, a nation with emissions reduction targets could choose the most cost-effective location for a project, even if in another country.

It sounded like a good policy that industry would generally like and would improve the economics of climate change initiatives.  However, the Clinton administration seemed determined to get this policy into the Kyoto Protocol at any price.

On November 12 1998, Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the government but warned that the US would not ratify it without the meaningful participation of key developing countries. This did not happen, and the US was out.

On March 28 2001, the new president officially announced that the US would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol as should have been expected. But the reaction was a surprising world outcry, as if the new George W Bush administration was making a radical departure in US policy.

Yet, Gore had said as much when he signed the protocol, and Bush’s declaration was simply policy euthanasia, finally putting an end to the failed negotiations.

The failure of the US to join an international agreement on climate change can be assigned to the understanding of the short phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities.” For over 20 years, seasoned bureaucrats – especially those of the US and China – have haggled over the meaning of these four simple words.

China has vehemently opposed binding carbon targets for itself and other developing nations, but the refusal to adopt carbon targets, however plausible and defendable such a position, creates a de facto problem. If the entire world achieved on a per capita basis the ‘American dream’, then global emissions would rise from 27 billion tonnes to 117 billion tonnes per annum.

Without some restrictions on the growth of emissions in developing countries, it will be impossible to bring global emissions under control. One can make some valid arguments to justify why China should not have to participate, yet these arguments do not help the planet as China’s insatiable appetite for energy has transformed a domestic problem into an international crisis.

To illustrate this point, if the US and the EU carbon emissions had been zero in 2010, the world emissions still would have been about the same as 1990, the Kyoto base year. Even if they tried their best, the US and the EU cannot stop climate change without China.

Canada can be viewed as a microcosm for the typical factors influencing the range of political positions on climate change. While a leader in the early days of the climate change negotiations, it is best remembered today as being the only country that officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.  Nevertheless, regrettable as it was, Canada’s withdrawal was appropriate under the circumstances.

In the next segment of this series on chapter 4 of Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, an analysis is presented on the diplomatic discussions that led to the Kyoto Protocol, from the viewpoint of the other players, Germany and the European Union.

Gerald Kutney is managing director of Sixth Element Sustainable Management. His book, Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, is being published by Routledge in January 2014. Pre-order your copy here.

Further reading:

Carbon politics: foul ball in the 2010 season

Carbon politics: the gamesmanship of the Kyoto negotiations

COP19: international climate talks begin in Warsaw, Poland

Strong national action on climate change spurs on international agreements, says study

Climate change is ‘not a high priority for most politicians’


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

Continue Reading


New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


Continue Reading