Why Australia should not sign the Kyoto protocol


With Russia having recently ratified the
Kyoto protocol it will come into action on 16 February. It has again
raised the question whether Australia should join or not. Martin
Callinan (NM Issue 20: A new Australian position on climate change)
clearly argued for a more positive stance towards Kyoto. The official
Federal government reason given for not signing is one of costs of
compliance. Another reason often cited includes not wanting to join
unless the US does so.

In this article it is argued that
Australia should not sign because the Kyoto protocol is based on the
naïve premise that all countries stand to lose equally from climate
change. Unlike many other countries, Australia can reasonably expect to
benefit from the greenhouse effect and should thus be compensated for
efforts to reduce its effect.

The first issue is whether there
truly is a greenhouse effect. The answer to this has been ‘yes, to the
best ability of science to say so’. Using data from Greenland and South
Pole ice cores that map the world’s climate as far back as about 150
thousand years, it seems that current world temperature is at its
highest point for some 120 thousand years and still rising. The CO2
levels in the atmosphere held responsible for this have risen beyond
any historical comparison. Even in the world’s last great warm period
120 thousand years ago, CO2 levels were about half of today’s levels of
400 parts per million.

Furthermore, it is beyond much doubt
that it is our energy consumption that is driving this CO2 increase:
CO2 levels in the world’s atmosphere have almost doubled in the last
200 years with the advent of the industrial revolution and the computed
usage of fossil fuel in those years is sufficiently high to account for
the increase in our atmosphere. Indeed, our current use of fossil fuels
is so high that oil is predicted to run out within fifty years. The
likely successors to oil look to be (various forms of) coal, gas, and
perhaps non-fossil fuels (such as alcohol or linseed oil) which will
thus in effect push CO2 levels even higher for quite a while after oil
runs out.

The baseline prediction that the International Panel
for Climate Change (IPCC) came up with in 2000 is that the earth as a
whole is likely to warm by about 2.5 degrees Celsius in the next
century (dimming may reduce this number); with average rainfalls
increasing by some 10 per cent (higher temperatures mean more of the
ocean evaporates which has to come down as rainfall somewhere).

It should be noted that the effect of Kyoto on these predictions is virtually nil. Bjorn Lomborg, known by his book The Skeptical Environmentalist,
calculated that even if all countries were to ratify and implement
Kyoto, it would have no more than a 3 per cent effect on the pace of
climate change. Though disputing many of his other claims, even Kyoto
proponents (such as Martin Callinan) had to agree it is no more than a
start. Kyoto will lead to no more than a symbolic rather than a
substantial reduction in CO2 emissions where a substantial reduction
would require serious impediments to economic growth.

The notion
that the Rich World or the booming economies of South East Asia and
Latin America, whose boom is accompanied by unprecedented increases in
energy consumption, are going to seriously curtail their economies in
order to avert climate outcomes is, in the present political climate,
absurd. No country has put forward a proposal that would really alter
matters nor does the world seem likely to get agreement in such an
event. Can you, for instance, imagine the government of India, whose
economy is finally growing fast enough (8 per cent last year) to
promise real improvements for millions of poor Indians, stopping that
growth to help avert world climate change? No realist could think the
pressures towards averting climate change would outweigh the pressures
for increasing energy consumption. Hence a realist should brace him or
herself for climate change. It’s going to happen. The question is
whether Australia has much to fear and thus whether it should play any
leadership role in attempts to change the current climate trajectory.

does the warming of the planet then imply in terms of changes that may
affect human habitation? The first effect that is often mentioned is
that it would lead to a melting of the glaciers on Greenland, the North
Pole, and the South Pole. If all that happened, sea levels would rise
by some seventy meters – enough to ensure the demise of most currently
inhabited coastal lands of the world. This is not likely to happen in a
hurry though, nor is it true that all forms of glacial melting will
have much effect. If the whole of the North Pole, for instance, melted
away, this would have no effect on sea levels at all simply because the
North Pole ice cap already increases water levels by the fact that it
lies on the water and thus displaces as much water as it contains in
the form of ice.

What matters for rising sea levels is thus
whether the glaciers on Greenland and the South Pole melt away, and
even then it is not relevant what happens to those glaciers already
afloat. Even the most pessimistic scenarios would have the Greenland
glaciers melt in no less than 1000 years. Furthermore, the predicted
temperature increases are by no means high enough to lead to the
melting of the South Pole.

Hence one should more realistically
look for a couple of meters increase in sea levels at the most in the
coming centuries. This may spell disaster for several countries (such
as Bangladesh or the Netherlands) whose coastlines are long and have to
defend very shallow lands. A simple look at the geology of Australia
reveals it has very little to fear in this regard though: Australia has
no significant shallow coastland to speak of. At most, some harbours
would have to be relocated but the blunt truth is that Australia rises
from the sea so steeply in nearly all places that a couple of meters
increase in sea levels is not going to lead to significant loss of
arable land. This in turn implies that countries that expect to lose
much from rising sea levels should offer Australia, who would expect to
lose little, compensation for the costs it would incur to avert rising
sea levels.

Another effect often quoted by the Commonwealth
Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) would be strong
local increases in temperature and even decreases in rainfall in some
places. Every couple of years CSIRO comes up with a new set of main
predictions about the likely future climate of Australia. The
predictions of CSIRO and other climate institutions are, however, all
over the place. Predictions for the temperature in Sydney in fifty
years time range from a cooling by 1 degree to a warming by 6 degrees
Celsius (CSIRO 2001).

The heart of the matter is that the
ability to predict long-term climate change at the local level is as
yet extremely poor. Ocean currents, cloud behavior, vegetation
response, the fate of ocean sinks and predominant wind directions:
these are all up for grabs in predictions and though the scientists try
their best they really can’t say with much more certainty about our
future climate than give a prediction for the world as a whole.

is in this respect handy to reflect on whether Australia’s climate
could really get much worse than it is at present, as some predictions
would have you believe. Australia is already extremely dry and hot
compared to other countries at the same latitude. One would really have
to stack the deck heavily in unlikely directions to get at situations
in which Australia’s climate would get even worse (bear in mind that
it’s much easier to get additional funding if you flag impending doom
rather than when you say all is ok).

The bottom line is that an
increase of 2.5 degrees Celsius and 10 per cent more rain would
probably increase agricultural yield rather than reduce it, although
this is hard to say with certainty. The areas that would be adversely
affected, such as the already bone-dry infertile interior that is
predicted to become even hotter, don’t produce much food anyway. The
issue hinges on the more productive colddry areas in South and South
East Australia, where the best soils are. Both of those regions could
do with a bit more rain and would not necessarily suffer from higher
temperatures either.

There is another, more direct, positive
effect of climate change though. Increases in CO2 concentrations
directly make plants more fertile, known as the carbon dioxide
fertilization effect. The causal mechanism is that plants and trees
(anything that photosynthesizes) excrete water through their leaves in
order to extract CO2 from the air (evapotransporation). When the
concentration of CO2 is higher, plants get more CO2 for the same amount
of water excreted. Hence, with the same amount of water, they grow
faster when CO2 concentrations increase. This effect of CO2 increases
has indeed been confirmed to hold for the growth of trees in the US.
Tree ring widths have thus significantly increased in the last 200
years for bristlecone pine, limber pine, and fox tail pine in the Great
Basin of California, Nevada, and Arizona and bristlecone pine in

This last effect should not be underestimated:
satellites measuring this tell us that biomass production is
increasing, though not equally everywhere. A deep environmentalist
should thus rejoice at net gains in total biomass and burn as much
fossil fuel as possible in order to release the trapped CO2 in fossils
for current plants to increase their photosynthesis. The evidence is
mixed as to whether deserts have truly sprung to life because of this
mechanism though some studies indeed suggest the Sahara is actually
receding because of this effect. If you need convincing: when is the
last time you heard the fear that the Sahel, which is the strip of
countries just below the Sahara, was going to turn into unproductive
desert as feared decades ago? The truth is that it has seen increases
in food production in the last twenty years!

Net world
production of plants is increasing because of the increases in CO2,
rain, and temperature. All one could reasonably complain about is the
distribution of gains and losses and ‘collateral damage’ such as loss
of coastlands. Note though that on a world level, there are probably as
many gains as there are losses: there are enormous slabs of land in
Siberia and Canada that would become extremely fertile with higher
temperatures and more CO2 and it thus makes eminent sense to compensate
those countries for reducing CO2 emissions (Russia indeed stands to
gain from Kyoto).

Australia stands to benefit a lot from the CO2
increases in the last centuries. Holding all else constant, it would
increase its agricultural production significantly. Add to that the
likely benefits of more rainfall and the fact that Australia stands to
lose little from sea level increases, and a powerful case emerges for
Australia to remain hesitant about Kyoto. If other countries that do
stand to lose a lot want Australia to engage in costly measures to
avert climate change, then they should simply compensate Australia for
doing so. If those countries standing to lose are not willing to
compensate Australia, then that signifies that they are looking for a
free ride at Australia’s expense.

All this is not to say that
Australia or the world does not have serious environmental problems.
We’re on an unprecedented environmental trajectory whose end no-one
knows. Erosion; weeds; the extinction of many animals and plants; the
loss of world habitat available to other species; the depletion of
ocean fishing stocks; these and many other problems Australia faces in
conjunction with the rest of the world. CO2 emissions, however, are
probably not a serious problem for Australia and we should not be
lulled into joining the ineffective and minimalist Kyoto protocol
solely for the symbolic value of doing so. A system that does not
recognize that some countries are likely to benefit from climate change
will not work and is more likely to become part of the problem than
part of the solution.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.