The Kyoto Protocol Enters Into Force

"The Specter at the Feast" by Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the occasion of the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol.

It was at the Nairobi headquarters of UNEP where the clock began ticking for the entry into force of the world’s first climate change treaty.

Nearly 90 days ago we stood by and applauded Ambassador Andrey Denisov of Russia as he handed to Secretary-General Kofi Annan his country’s accession papers to the Kyoto Protocol.

The symbolic act, during an exceptional meeting of the United Nations Security Council, meant that the treaty had now secured the necessary 55 per cent of the world’s industrialised emissions to be given legal life.

That this hand over happened in Africa was particularly poignant. For this is where the hammer of global warming will, if unchecked, likely hit hardest.

The entry into force comes in what promises to be a momentous year. In September, at a session of the UN General Assembly, nations will review progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

These cover the main challenges facing the world from fighting poverty and boosting the level of people with access to clean and sufficient drinking water to delivering universal primary education and reducing the spread of infectious diseases.

A report by a special Task Force on the MDGs, established at the request of the Secretary-General under the chair of Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University, makes it clear that the environment is a key cornerstone for delivering all of the Goals.

This simple, stark, fact will be a key focus when over 100 environment ministers meet next week in Nairobi for our Governing Council to plan and agree the organization’s future activities.

The Task Force’s findings, in their report Environment and Human Well-Being, also underline that climate change is the specter at the feast, capable of undermining our attempts to deliver a healthier, fairer and more resilient world.

Climate change is also singled out for special attention in A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility which is the report of the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.

Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, has made the twin issues of climate change and Africa the centre piece of this year’s UK presidencies of the G-8 and the European Union.

Again, climate change in the spotlight. Again Africa, the continent where the MDGs are proving hardest to achieve.

So we need to take this unprecedented political momentum to propel us into a new effort to move beyond the targets and time-tables agreed under the Kyoto Protocol towards the even deeper cuts in greenhouse gases necessary to stabilize the world’s climate.

We also have new science that is concentrating minds and should give courage to those leaders who may be wavering on tackling the economic and other reforms needed for a low carbon world.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body which advises governments and which was established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization, concluded a few years ago that global temperatures may rise by as much as 5.8 degrees C by 2100 without action.

But researchers, reporting a few weeks ago in the journal Nature, have concluded that could rise even higher and that this may come as soon as the middle of the century.

Another report, again launched a few weeks ago by the International Climate Change Task Force which is an alliance of three think-tanks based in America, Australia and the United Kingdom, argue that even a two degree Centigrade rise could take the planet past a point of ‘no return’.

These two reports make terrifying reading, a vision of a planet spinning out of control.

I certainly hope that these new calculations are proven wrong. However, it seems that many of the past theoretical forecasts are sadly coming to pass.

One report, also being launched at our Governing Council, looks at evidence that global warming may already be altering ocean circulation patterns with all the consequences for global and regional weather systems.

Late in 2004, an impact assessment on the Arctic concluded that over the past three decades, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has declined an average of 8% annually, exposing an area larger than Texas and Arizona combined. The effect is most dramatic in summer, when ice levels drop as much as 20%.

By 2100, as much as half of the region’s sea ice may have melted away with huge consequences not only for global weather systems but the people and wildlife of the Arctic.

The Arctic is the Earth’s barometer, its natural climate early warning system. But it is not the only place where nature is on the move as result of climbing temperatures.

According to the re-insurance industry, 2004 witnessed the highest level of insured losses as a result of the kind of weather-related disasters forecast by climate scientists.

The uninsured losses, particularly significant to the development of developing countries and for the poorest of the poor, totaled more than $90 billion even before the Indian Ocean tsunami is factored into the sums.

Therefore, let us enjoy this special day as the Kyoto Protocol passes into force, but celebrate with the certain knowledge that we must do much more to achieve climatic stability and thus the MDGs.

There are those, heckling from the rear of the auditorium, with cries that without the United States the Protocol is more dead than alive.

But, while the Government of the United States has decided against the Kyoto treaty, many individual states in America are adopting or planning to adopt greenhouse gas reductions in line with the spirit of the Protocol.

Many businesses there are also active and keen to join the new emission trading schemes and markets opening up. The Government itself is also promoting higher energy efficiency and alternatives like hydrogen and solar.

With oil at over $50 dollars a barrel, and unlikely to return to the luxuriously low prices of the past, alternative energy sources and energy efficiency are rapidly becoming more attractive simply from an economic and energy supply stability point of view.

The pessimists, who confidently counciled that Kyoto would never come into legal force, have been proved wrong.

Some of this fire has now shifted to the fulfillment of the Millennium Declaration and its eight Goals.

So we must act swift and sure to go beyond Kyoto. We must put the planet on course for the up to 60 per cent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to conserve the climate.

In doing so we can not only reduce the risk of rising, weather-related, disasters but ensure the stability of the environment upon which, it is now clear, the Millennium Development Goals will stand or fall.


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