That sound you don't hear in the street outside is the crowds who aren't cheering to celebrate the entry into effect of the Kyoto Protocol. Thirteen years after the Climate Change Convention was agreed at the Earth Summit in 1992, and 8 years after each country's targets for cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions were defined at Kyoto, they are finally doing something about global warming. No wonder the euphoria has worn off a bit.
Under the treaty, industrialized countries responsible for at least 55 per cent of total rich-country emissions had to ratify the treaty before it went into effect. Once President Bush 'unsigned' the treaty, it meant that practically everybody else had to ratify, since the United States of America alone accounts for 36 per cent of emissions.
Despite the best efforts of the Bush administration to sabotage the treaty by persuading other countries not to ratify either, they almost all did. Only four of the original 34 developed countries ' the US, Australia, Monaco and Liechtenstein ' have refused to take part. Russia's assent was vital since its own emissions are second only to those of the US.
Moscow stalled for an extra 2 years but it finally jumped down off the fence. Its decision was driven partly by the fact that it could make a lot of money off 'emissions trading' if it adhered to the treaty. So there it is at last, 13 years in the making: the Kyoto Protocol. What can it do for us' It is certainly not going to stop global warming in the short term. All the greenhouse gases that will cause the next 30 years of damage have already left the chimneys and the tail-pipes and are moving up through the atmosphere now.
That's worrisome, because the climate conference at the UK meteorological office in Exeter heard last week that the West Antarctic Ice Shelf, previously seen as stable, is probably starting to melt, which would ultimately raise sea levels worldwide by 16 feet. And a study by the met office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction showed that the impact of man-made greenhouse gases on climate may be twice as great as we previously thought.
Measured against such potentially catastrophic consequences, the modest controls on greenhouse emissions ordained by the Kyoto Protocol seem like a total waste of time. The cuts are shallow and will not even be enforced until 2008-2012, the world's leading polluter, the US, has opted out, and developing countries, including the rapidly industrializing China and Japan, don't even have to cut their increasing emissions.
Worth a try
And yet it is worthwhile. It is the first legally binding international treaty on the environment, with a system of auditing greenhouse-gas emissions for each country and financial penalties for those that do not meet their targets. Getting countries to surrender their national sovereignty over domestic industrial policy in this way was so unprecedented ' but so vital to dealing with a global problem like climate change ' that the equally painful question of deeper cuts was left until the next round.
Now, however, the principle is established, and the next round of talks will have to agree on much deeper cuts in emissions than this time. Moreover, the developing countries, which were exempted from the first-round controls because the existing problem was caused almost entirely by the old industrialized countries, will have to accept emission control targets too. It's cumbersome, but it is heading in the right direction.
If the measures we take today can stop global warming by 2050, say, with a temperature rise of only two degrees, global warming will still be a very big problem, but it probably won't be an utter catastrophe. That is what Kyoto is about, so get out there and start cheering.