Scientists, both real and wannabe, continue to debate whether we should be concerned about climate change, or global warming. However, most nations have adopted the adage "better safe than sorry," and thereby ratified the Kyoto Protocol in February 2005.
The Kyoto Protocol was established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under Kyoto, member countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent a global rise in temperature.
Pain in the Gases
Six gases are targeted for reduction: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs. Carbon dioxide emissions are the biggest problem. Along with gasoline used in cars, deforestation increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when trees are burned to clear land for housing and animal grazing.
Methane is a by product of manure, coal mining, oil/gas drilling, and garbage landfills. Nitrous oxide is released naturally from oceans and soil but its presence is exacerbated by the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, vehicle exhaust, and sewage treatment plants.
Sulfur hexafluoride is used in electrical equipment. HFCs (hydroflurocarbons) are found in household items such as aerosol cans, refrigerators, and air conditioners while PFCs (perfluorocarbons) are used in semiconductor and aluminum production.
Each country has targets to reach for reducing greenhouse gas emissions including 8% for European Union, 7% for U.S., and 6% for Japan. The agreement provides incentives for cutting pollution through a system of emissions trading. A country that emits less than its quota of greenhouse gases can sell emission credits to polluting nations.
In addition, a country may receive credits through shared clean energy programs and carbon dioxide "sinks" in the form of forest or other ecosystems that remove carbon dioxide from the air.
Yeas and Nays for Kyoto Protocol
Not everyone supports the Kyoto Protocol. Both the U.S., a major greenhouse gas emitter, and Australia did not sign the Kyoto ratification. Both nations feel their economies would be disadvantaged by competing with developing nations who are not included in the Protocol. China, the #2 greenhouse gasbag, along with the burgeoning economy of India are exempted from Kyoto Protocol requirements.
Australia believes Kyoto does not provide a comprehensive, long-term plan to address climate change. In addition, the current U.S. administration questions the validity of global warming. Other critics say the costs to reduce emissions outweigh the benefits and suggest a carbon tax or emissions trading as more economically efficient alternatives.
These arguments ring hollow. U.S. trade policies which encourage American companies to pursue cheap overseas labor in countries with lax environmental and labor standards do more to harm the nation's economy than Kyoto Protocol requirements.
As for Australia's lament of a long-range plan to address climate change, the Kyoto Protocol is an effective first step toward implementing measures to reduce or eliminate the effects of global warming. Greenhouse gas reduction methods will face a trial and error period, but countries committed to solving the problem will work with their citizens and industry to create effective solutions.
Supporters of the Kyoto Protocol outnumber the naysayers. European Union member states are firmly behind it and want to cut their emissions by 8% from 1990 levels. The original target was 15% and critics have lamented this target reduction. The EU projects it will be 4.7% below 1990 levels by 2008.
Despite the U.S. government's anti-Kyoto stance, many states have agreed to initiatives to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Northeast states including New York, New Jersey, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut formed a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Participating states will use an emissions trading system and require electric power generators to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Major cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago are also implementing emission reduction plans.
Even the non-supporters of the Kyoto Protocol have acknowledged the need for some action on the greenhouse gas issue. In July 2005, Australia, China, India, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea signed the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate pact.
The pact allows individual member nations to set their own emission reduction goals without any formal enforcement measures. Critics say the lack of enforcement renders the agreement useless.
Why Worry about Rising Temperatures?
As the Earth's temperature rises over time, it increases the chance of more severe weather. Floods and drought cause food shortages, displaced people, and higher insurance rates. Warmer temperatures raise sea levels and erode coastal lines causing people living near these areas to have to move to inland, often to areas already plagued with overcrowding.
Hotter temperatures are a breeding ground for insects, many of them spreading diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and West Nile virus. Beetles bugs may look cute but they're deadly. Their increasing population killed trees which in turn provided dry fuel for the 2003 wildfires in Southern California. Smoke particles and noxious gases linger longer in hot air making life difficult for those suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems.