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Carbon politics: the gamesmanship of the Kyoto negotiations

Photo: Ian Barbour via Flickr

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 first of five instalments, he provides an overview of the manuscript and the first chapter.

The governments of the world have united in the cause to fight climate change under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol. As the first phase of Kyoto has ended, the time is upon us to reflect on what has been done. While we may commemorate such anniversaries, the results of our global efforts are not cause for celebration. Emissions are higher now than ever before.

Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol charts the framework and political evolution of the Kyoto negotiations in search for an answer to the international community’s failure to effectively act on climate change. The focus is not on the science or consequences of climate change, but on the political gamesmanship which has been pervasive throughout the Kyoto negotiations by the major players.

The influence of politics on the Kyoto process has been well studied, and Carbon Politics is more than an updated history of the subject matter. What is new is the detailed study of the Kyoto targets which became, arguably, the major influence on the reaction of nations to Kyoto.

An objective of the book is to identify what went wrong with Kyoto and to clear up popular misconceptions on global leadership on climate change legislation. Without such knowledge, a way forward to reduce global emissions cannot be achieved. At the end of Carbon Politics, framework and policy suggestions are made to lower emissions going forward.

Chapter 1 – The Players’ Association: the United Nations

Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol begins with a study of the complex negotiations that ultimately led to the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Kyoto Protocol.

United Nations treaties are forged in their own world that many of us know very little about. Debates over a phrase can extend over years, and an agreement on a single paragraph can be hailed as an important breakthrough. Within this daunting and drawn out process, the treaty itself can unintentionally become the goal.

Kyoto fell into this trap, as the original intent to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was sacrificed for the sake of reaching a deal, and the practical result is that the protocol has become little more than a reporting mechanism. What good is a global climate treaty where most nations have no restraints on their greenhouse gas emissions?

As external pressure grew for action, governments had sent the ball back to the scientific court by demanding a consensus of the problem. A special organisation to undertake this mission was created by the UN, the IPCC, which was the official source of climate science for the Kyoto negotiators. The evolution and inner workings of this critical group are examined, and an answer is provided on why the powerful science from the IPCC has not done more to motivate governments to reduce emissions.

A serious restriction imposed upon the IPCC was that developing nations had to be fairly represented in all aspects of their work and structure. The external constraint came from being an intergovernmental body of the United Nations. There were more discussions in the minutes of the plenary sessions of the IPCC on geographic balance than any other single issue, and the participation of the developing countries became the agent of change within the IPCC.

By definition, geographical representation is a political not scientific matter. Politics interfering with the science of the IPCC had long been a threat, but major interference by governments in the reports of the IPCC had largely been controlled. With regional affirmative action, political interference became embedded in the organisation. This represented the politicisation of science at the highest level…demanded by the UN itself.

While, in principle, the developing countries should have been more represented, this forced a dilemma. Setting objectives – scientific integrity and regional representation – which potentially conflict with each other is a recipe for failure.

Although reluctant to do so, the IPCC gave way to the demands of their parent organisations, even though quotas on regional representation could only cause a dilution in expertise; the good intentions inherently resulted in the best experts not necessarily leading the IPCC or the preparation of the Assessment Reports.

During the preparation of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), a scandal known as “glaciergate” would emerge that would put into question the scientific integrity of the IPCC. While regional diversification cannot be held responsible for this failure of the Assessment Report system, its contribution to it cannot be simply ignored either.

This failure of the IPCC system is discussed in Chapter 2 of Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol.

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:

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

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

Rio+50: the long view

10% of companies responsible for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions

Global scientists call for IPCC’s reform

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