In its 2001 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that global temperatures would increase, mostly due to man-made greenhouse gases, by anything from 1.4¡ to 5.8¡ centigrade between 1990 and 2100. In October 2003, the journal Nature estimated that the Kyoto Protocol would suppress the average global increase in temperatures by no more than 0.28¡ centigrade by the year 2050. Thus, even assuming that the Kyoto targets will be met by the protocol's 140 signatory countries (an unlikely proposition) they will do little to stop or slow the earth's warming. It is clear that more needs to be done beyond Kyoto without delay.
This might appear to explain to some why the Bush administration, after renouncing the Kyoto accord during the G8 summit in early July, has announced that it is entering a 'post-Kyoto era' and that it will participate in an alternative climate accord called the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate. The US and the other countries involved - Japan, Australia, China, India and South Korea - pledged to share technological advances to control emissions, but did not agree to mandatory emissions cuts.
The actual purpose of Washington's announcement, however, had nothing to do with transcending or bettering the UN climate-change framework, of which the Kyoto Protocol is a component. But it was consistent with other Bush initiatives that favour US unilateralism at the expense of important UN-based international agreements.
The most obvious of these is the US-led invasion of Iraq. The invasion was planned, threatened and initiated outside the formal procedures and requirements that have been established at the UN and under international law to handle such things. Instead, the Bush administration invented its 'coalition of the willing'. The result is the Iraq disaster we are all witnessing.
Likewise, on 18 July Bush announced an agreement with India to sell it civilian nuclear technology, even though US domestic law currently prohibits such sales because India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty - it currently makes and deploys nuclear weapons in violation of the treaty. According to Reuters, the US-India bilateral agreement 'upends decades-old non-proliferation rules'. Experts have said that the agreement will make it more difficult to enforce non-proliferation rules as applied to Iran and North Korea. The result is likely to be more nuclear proliferation and less security.
The Bush move to narrowly align itself with a small group of nations on global warming outside the established UN framework fits this pattern. Its objective is not to remedy the inadequacies of Kyoto, but to circumvent anticipated motions to strengthen the UN framework on climate change at a critically important conference in Montreal this autumn.
Some good advice about the newly announced US-Asia track on global warming was given by Lord Robert May of Oxford, the president of the Royal Society, who on 28 July said: 'The science points to the need for a Herculean effort to make massive cuts in the amount of greenhouse gases that we pump into the atmosphere. So, while this encouraging new deal may play a role in this, it will only be part... of the solution... We have serious concerns that the apparent lack of targets in this deal means that there is no sense of what it is ultimately trying to achieve or the urgency of taking action to combat climate change. And the developed countries involved with this agreement must not be tempted to use it as an excuse to avoid tackling their own emissions. All eyes should be on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Montreal at the end of November.'
We already know that Kyoto will do little to stop global warming. Its objectives were weakened by the US to the point of ineffectuality in pre-Kyoto negotiations throughout the 1990s. As negotiations begin in Montreal to establish a post-Kyoto climate plan, the world has no time left to indulge yet again US unilateralism.
Howard Friel is co-author with Richard Falk of The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004)
This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2005