Which countries that signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, which set goals for reducing global warming emissions, are fulfilling or surpassing their commitments? Which are falling short and why?
—Dan S., via e-mail
As of the end of 2006, 169 countries had signed onto the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement forged in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 calling on the world”s industrialized nations to reduce emissions of so-called “greenhouse gases” thought to be contributing to global warming. The agreement called for a 5.2 percent reduction overall in the release of six pollutants—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs)—by 2012 in relation to 1990 levels.
Although the agreement was hammered out 10 years ago, its emissions reduction standards did not take effect until two years ago, in February 2005. As such, signatory countries have only barely begun to make changes, and no one has yet conducted a comprehensive study of progress toward reaching targets. United Nations research does show, however, that a majority of the 36 European countries that signed onto the Kyoto Protocol are currently not on track to meet their goals by 2012.
However, the 27-member-nation European Union (EU), which as a block is one of the largest global warming polluters, is likely to meet its collective goal. This is due in large part to Eastern European states having shut down or modernized heavy polluting Soviet-era industries during the 1990s. Also helping the EU effort is the United Kingdom, which is on track to meet its goals, thanks mostly to a switch from coal-fired power plants to cleaner burning natural gas. Germany and France also hope to meet their Kyoto commitments, largely through a program of subsidies for the development of non-polluting energy sources. And Sweden expects to overachieve on its Kyoto targets thanks to the imposition of a hefty carbon tax on polluting industries and big investments in alternative energy sources.
Topping the list of Kyoto slackers is Canada, which last year became the first signatory country to announce that it would not meet its Kyoto target of a six percent emissions cut by 2012. New oil production in the tar sands of Alberta has instead forced Canada”s greenhouse gas emissions up significantly, as the government has chosen to pursue economic growth as a priority over meeting its Kyoto commitments. Japan is also lagging behind. If no additional measures are taken, the United Nations forecasts that Japan”s emissions will instead grow six percent by 2012. But Japan”s environment ministry says that implementation of some market-based incentives in 2008 should help Japan meet its goal.
Regrettably, the United States and Australia don”t have to worry about meeting any commitments, as neither country agreed to sign the Kyoto agreement, even though together the two major industrial powers account for 30 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. President George W. Bush does not support mandatory caps on emissions, arguing that such a move would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy. He also complains that developing nations are not being held up to the same standards as the rest of the world. Unfortunately, with the U.S. on the sidelines, the good faith efforts of dozens of other nations could end up being quite immaterial in the fight to stave off global warming.