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Carbon politics: the gamesmanship of the Kyoto negotiations



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


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.

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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.


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