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Climate Change or a Changing Climate in the Asia-Pacific? [ 2006.01.16 ]

The Kyoto Protocol was a wonderfully optimistic piece of international document drafting and, as its name suggests, it was born out of Japan, arguably the most influential international player in the Asia-Pacific today. Japan can be proud of its hosting status for the creation of what should have been the most important global treaty ever created. They were impressively upfront in showing the world how such an environmental pact is paramount to the future of all humans and that no one region, nation, or individual is exempt from concerning themselves over the matter of climate change. It should have come as a huge insult then when the United States refused to ratify, accept, accede, or approve the protocol based on its own misgivings about economic down turn. Surely if other states as economically powerful as the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan itself could find a way to make the treaty work for the betterment of mankind then why not the US? The US of course protested that the stringent emissions targets set by the protocol would unfairly hobble its industrial output leading to a weakened economy and no doubt placing strain on its super power status. Australia too said that it could not be expected to reasonably meet the emissions targets without considerable financial hardship on the Australian taxpayer. So within our own region you have two nations, one the biggest polluter in the world, the other the biggest per capita polluter in the world, and both refusing to put into place the very system the world so desperately requires. How is this fair to the citizens of the world whose leaders have graciously accepted the need to curb fossil fuel emissions? Does not ratifying Kyoto really make you an environmental vandal, and how come some of the poorest nations are willing to participate yet two of the wealthiest stubbornly refuse to do so?

Calling upon its huge pool of resources the United Nations drew up a meticulous set of guidelines on how to effectively and realistically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Anyone who reads the document can see that really every aspect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions through socio-political mechanisms has been represented. From the practices of agriculture and forestry to the fiscal devices of taxation and subsidisation, the treaty touches upon all facets of governance and human industry and the ways in which they should be altered so as to assist in the reduction of global warming. To the common man it appears to be an almost perfect written representation of what needs to be done to decrease the production of carbon dioxide, so why wouldn’t any self respecting government put it into practice? The huge sticking point as far as the US is concerned is that it would have to considerably alter its own industrial production practices whilst underdeveloped nations such as India and China do not have to. Whilst pound for pound this may seem unjust the US is forgetting one very simple point. It has worked its way to the top of the international economic pile by massively churning out industrial pollution for hundreds of years. The US would not be where it is today if it had not deforested, gas guzzled, oil swallowed, and coal burnt at such levels that are ultimately proving to be unsustainable. The point is that America has had its carefree ‘industrialise now, worry later’ time in the sun, and is reaping the financial rewards because of it. It is no coincidence that the US has the most number of billionaires in the world, 269, and is also the worst polluter. Japan meanwhile has a paltry 29 people who can claim to have a 10-figure bank balance but still their government is concerted towards really tackling the climate issue. What is it that Japan can see that the United States is blind to? Is Japan more humble in appreciating where it sits in the world hierarchy, that is to say, a rich nation comfortably well off that can afford to deal with issues of huge significance to humanity? Does Japan lack an element of greed that the US clings onto dearly, the need to keep producing more for financial gain whatever the environmental and humanitarian cost? Or is Japan merely wishing to look the part in the world community, all strong and wise on the outside, but on the inner still concerned only with its own survival. After all, who knows what a rise in sea levels would do to the coastal cities and plains of the Japanese archipelago?

The US and Australian positions on Kyoto have made them public enemy number one in the eyes of foreign ministers and especially ministers for the environment in many countries, but its become painfully obvious that neither intends on joining in the world community’s treatise. Does this really mean they are nothing but heartless capitalists hell bent on earning a dollar until there is no world left in which to earn one? Well, seemingly not if you take recent events into perspective. Having formed the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate earlier in the year, these two, along with the People's Republic of China, India, Japan, and South Korea were looking at ways to augment if not completely by pass the Kyoto agreement in Sydney this week. The big push by the States is to focus on technologies to clean industry emissions and even store pollution through new methods such as geosequestration (ground storage) as opposed to reducing the net use of fossil fuels such as coal for industries. The argument is that the same result can be achieved, i.e. lessening the trend of global warming, not by using less energy and therefore slowing industries and economies, but by making big business develop and implement technologies to remove the damaging aspect of industrial pollution. Seemingly this makes sense since it would be difficult to live in a world where developing nations could go on polluting, causing much future damage, whilst developed nations sit idly by watching their economies get overrun. Surely by concentrating on capturing the pollution output of industry rather than on restricting the energy input, and by sharing this technology, then all national economies get to grow and prosper equally whilst the planet’s climate gets looked after too. Of course, the Kyoto protocol promotes the invention and implementation of technologies too; it’s just that it happens to focus first and foremost on reducing emissions. It really does depend on which school of science you believe as to whether the world is hotting up as quickly as some academics declare.

Either way it seems yet again the US will only portray altruism internationally if it stands to gain or at the very least be in control of its own destiny. Much like with regards to the internationally unsanctioned and therefore illegal invasion of Iraq against the United Nations will, the Kyoto protocol is another example where the US refuses to relinquish self-governance over some aspect of its international standing. The cynic can easily see why the US has long refused to be party to the protocol, however maybe they are on to something as even Japan is content to discuss these issues within the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. Some scholars argue that the Kyoto protocol was really just about spreading social equity across the globe, promoting and aiding industry in developing nations whilst similarly curtailing the same in those nations who have already prospered. Conspiracy theories aside, one find it hards to imagine a world where the chief hegemonist peacefully allows for its own economic output to be diminshed whilst others, most notably China, a burgeoning super power in the making, is allowed to industrialise unchecked; and that is the fatal flaw of the Kyoto Protocol. It attempts to treat every nation equally whilst quite obviously some are “more equal” than others. Whilst it is more than likely that global warming requires urgent attention, it seems the world will have no choice but to allow the biggest polluter to tackle it in their own self-centred way. Let other nations hope then that whatever action the US does take they do so soon, for all our sakes.

Bernard Laidlaw


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