• Kyoto’s balance


    Excellent overview of the impact and shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol, 15 years on, by Dieter Helm in this Nature Comment.

    The main problem with the Kyoto approach is that it does not address the carbon footprint — carbon consumption. A country’s (and an individual’s) carbon footprint is best measured by looking at the carbon embedded in the goods and services that each consumes. Global warming takes no account of national boundaries. If a US consumer buys a car, it matters little whether the steel within it is made in the United States or China.

    The difference between carbon production and carbon consumption is not trivial. Take the United Kingdom: from 1990 to 2005, its carbon production fell by around 15%. But carbon consumption went up by around 19% once the carbon embedded in imports is taken into account2.

    From a Kyoto perspective, this is a triumph; for climate change, it is a disaster. It explains how emissions can apparently fall in Europe but go up globally as rapidly developing countries, such as China and India, export energy-intensive goods to Europe and the United States, which together make up around 50% of the world’s gross domestic product.
    The real villain of growing global emissions has been ignored: coal. Since the mid-1990s, coal has risen from supplying around 25% of the world’s primary energy to almost 30% now, in a context of a rapidly growing underlying energy demand5.

    Much of this coal burning has been in China, which switched from being an exporter to an importer of coal in the 1990s, and now accounts for a staggering 50% of world coal trade. Its share of global coal production is almost four times that of Saudi Arabia’s production of oil6. Around 80% of China’s electricity generation is coal-fired. China and India together add around three coal-fired power stations a week to their generation portfolios.

    Interesting overviews of the situation can also be found here about the actual impact of Kyoto commitments, here on the race to adapt to the inevitable changes looming, and here on the perspective of cap and trade schemes.

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