Michael McCarthy: Kyoto was never going to save the earth, anyway

It is a treaty written by environmental activists for ordinary people - who will not make these sacrifices

There sometimes comes a point in a troubled human relationship where one party recognises, or perhaps both do, a sad but necessary truth: that for all the hopes with which we started out, for all our willingness to keep things going and trust to better days, this isn't going to work. One could argue that this moment has arrived with the Kyoto Protocol.

There sometimes comes a point in a troubled human relationship where one party recognises, or perhaps both do, a sad but necessary truth: that for all the hopes with which we started out, for all our willingness to keep things going and trust to better days, this isn't going to work. One could argue that this moment has arrived with the Kyoto Protocol.

Today ministers from around the world, including Britain's Margaret Beckett and Michael Meacher, gather in New Delhi for the latest session of talks on the treaty designed to help the world combat the threat of climate change. And if all goes well, by the end of the week the protocol, and its schedule of cuts in greenhouse gases that its signatories must adhere to, may at last be on course to enter into force.

Yet to what end? It is now possible to see just what an enormous hole George Bush, the oilman son of an oilman father, has punched in this brave initial attempt to wean the world off its fatal dependence on the fossil fuels whose waste products, such as carbon dioxide, are causing the atmosphere to heat up – most scientists accept – with consequences likely to be disastrous for us all.

Mr Bush's unilateral withdrawal of the United States from the Kyoto treaty in March 2001 has halved, at least, the effectiveness of an instrument whose ability actually to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was already absolutely minuscule.

It is generally agreed that to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and bring climate change to a halt, a cutback of the order of 60 per cent, on 1990 levels, is needed in the world's emissions; Tony Blair has quoted this figure twice in recent speeches. Yet when it was signed in 1997, the Kyoto protocol merely specified an emissions cut of five per cent, and that from the industrialised countries alone.

It has been calculated that a cut of this size would reduce the global temperature rise in the coming century, expected to be up to 5.8 degrees centigrade as a global average, with much larger rises expected in high latitudes such as Europe, by a bare one-twentieth of one degree.

The withdrawal from the process of the United States, the world's single biggest emitter of greenhouse gases with no less than a quarter of the world total, chops this reduction in half again; British officials calculate that without America, if the rest of the Kyoto signatories achieve their targets – a big if – a cut of only between two and three per cent will be the result.

And what is needed is 60. Something is now very clear and needs to be accepted: with the Kyoto Protocol and its architecture of binding commitments, regulation and government diktat, this is not going to happen. The treaty should by no means be scrapped: the Kyoto process, the constant international engagement with the threat of climate change, has enormous value and keeps the world focused on the issue. But to deliver deep cuts in emissions, we will need something else.

The problem with Kyoto is that it is based on an inflated view of human nature; it is a treaty written for ordinary citizens, by environmental activists. The interests and ambitions of activists and citizens by no means coincide, and seeing the difference between these two kinds of persons has been the first step on the road to wisdom for many a politician.

To deliver the cuts we need in emissions, the Kyoto treaty ultimately expects people to make sacrifices in their personal lives; activists would say, "And quite right, too."

But in a democracy, and in the privacy of the polling booth, ordinary people will not vote for politicians demanding these sacrifices (or at least, not until they see their own interests immediately threatened, and with climate change, that point has not yet come).

George Bush pulled America out of Kyoto because it had to make bigger sacrifices than any other country. If, in the US, environmental activists are still berating him for it, nobody else is.

There could be no clearer illustration of the contrast between the activist and the citizen (and no stranger one) than in the two sides of the personality of John Prescott: environmental activist Prescott took a key role in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol, personally; citizen Prescott then came home and climbed into one of his gas-guzzling Jaguars.

It is citizens we must cater for, ordinary fallible people, people who aren't idealists, who have ordinary human wants and needs and greeds, if we are to fight climate change effectively in our democracies. The key will be not demanding that ordinary people change their lives, as Kyoto does, and as environmental activists do, but changing the technology by which those ordinary lives are lived.

The possibility of replacing the internal combustion engine with the hydrogen fuel cell seems to offer a real chance; the "hydrogen economy" is coming closer. The task for governments such as Britain's will be to push such technology as hard as they possibly can, with every economic and research incentive, and not to pretend that they will make any difference to the coming of global warming by merely meeting their commitments to a treaty which is entirely honourable, and well-intentioned, but not up to the job.

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