It was the best environmental event for years when the Kyoto protocol to counter global warming came into force last week. But there were also reminders from prominent UN leaders and scientists that the treaty only deals with the tip of a giant iceberg and much more needs to be done.
TWO separate but related news items last week captured the importance of the environment and especially of the effects of climate and nature on the world.
They are about the coming into force of the Kyoto treaty on climate change and the loss suffered by Asian fishing communities due to the tsunami.
On Feb 16, environmentalists and policy-makers celebrated the best ecological event in recent times the coming into force of the Kyoto protocol on global warming.
According to the protocol, which is under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), industrialised countries are to reduce their combined emissions of six major greenhouse gases during the five-year period from 2008 to 2012 to below 1990 levels.
So far, 128 member states have ratified the treaty. For example, the European Union and Japan are obliged to cut their emissions by 8% and 6% respectively.
Top UN officials used the occasion to urge more action. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on world leaders to place even more limits on greenhouse gases.
By itself, the protocol will not save humanity from the dangers of climate change, he said in a video message to a celebratory ceremony in Kyoto, where it was negotiated in 1997.
So let us celebrate today but let us not be complacent. I call on the world community to be bold, to adhere to the Kyoto protocol and to act quickly in taking the next steps. There is no time to lose.
The biggest drawback to the protocol was the withdrawal in 2001 of the United States, by far the worlds biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, from it.
This caused the members to have a crisis of identity of sorts. But the other states recovered, renewed their commitment and have forged ahead with plans to implement the treaty, without US involvement.
For the protocol to come into force, 55 parties to the UNFCCC must ratify it, including the developed countries whose combined 1990 emissions of carbon dioxide exceed 55% of that groups total.
Russia, with 17%, took the official step in November, pushing the amount beyond the threshold, enabling the protocol to enter into force.
Last Wednesday, the UN Environment Programme chief, Klaus Topfer, countered the claim that the protocol is more dead than alive without the United States, which accounts for about 24% of global fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions.
But he also called for more action. We must put the planet on course for the up to 60% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions needed to conserve the climate.
He noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific body set up by the UN, concluded that global temperatures might rise by as much as 5.8°C by 2100 without action.
Another report, launched a few weeks ago by the International Climate Change Task Force, argued that even a two-degree rise could take the planet past a point of no return, he said. It would appear that at this historic point, when the Kyoto protocol came into force, there is an emerging consensus that the world should adopt the following targets:
·TO keep the rise in average global temperature to a maximum of 2°C.
·THIS would mean limiting the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a maximum of 400 parts per million.
·TO reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 60% below the present levels, in order to achieve the above two targets.
It is obvious from the above that the current Kyoto protocol is not enough, as it only obliges the developed country members to cut their gas emissions by 2012 to around 5% to 10% below their 1990 levels. Even to meet this inadequate target will be a hard task.
Meanwhile, negotiations under the protocol will intensify on new commitments for countries beyond 2012.
The devastating effect that changes in natural conditions could have was brought home again last week with the release of new data on the loss to fisheries resources resulting from the recent Sumatra earthquake and its associated tsunami.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, there were losses of US$520mil (RM1.9bil) suffered by the fishing sector of the seven worst affected countries, with over 111,000 vessels destroyed or damaged, 36,000 engines lost and 1.7 million units of fishing gear ruined.
The cause of the tsunami was not linked to climate change.
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