Twenty years ago the largest assemblage of world leaders in human history gathered for the Rio Earth Summit whose highlights involved the signing of a Framework Convention on Climate Change and a Convention on Biological Diversity. Some modest advances in climate protection have been registered since June 1992, among them the Kyoto Protocol that entered into force in February 2005. Although the Kyoto Protocol seemed a remarkable breakthrough with roughly three dozen nations and the European Community ultimately agreeing to some limitation on emissions of six different "Kyoto gases," it also could be viewed as a Pyrrhic victory. First, the Kyoto Protocol never had a prayer of ratification in the Senate of the US, historically the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Second, its limited coverage meant that major developing countries such as China that a few years ago surpassed the US in annual greenhouse emissions were exempt from inclusion. Third, the lack of any enforcement teeth meant that a Kyoto party such as Canada could miss its targets by a large amount and effectively withdraw from the Kyoto orbit with economic impunity. Fourth, in what is likely the greatest Kyoto shortcoming, the treaty does not extend to emissions of black carbon and tropospheric ozone forming compounds that together are responsible for roughly forty per cent of the radiative forcing that drives climate change across the planet and for well over half of the radiative forcing behind climate change in the Arctic.
This Kyoto flaw has several pernicious effects- reductions of black carbon and tropospheric ozone forming compounds that because of their short atmospheric residence times could yield the quickest reductions in radiative forcing and that because of their added benefits in reducing air pollution related health damage would be the easiest to develop political traction for in most countries are not able to benefit from the financial incentives inherent in the Kyoto trading systems. Moreover, although methane is included as one of the six Kyoto gases, the 100 year time frame used for calculating carbon equivalencies produces only a modest incentive for reductions of this greenhouse gas whose roughly 12 year atmospheric residence time makes it possible to take a large near term bite out of radiative forcing.
The limitations of the Kyoto Treaty, together with rapid industrialization, livestock growing and emissions growth among key developing countries, and possible early signs of emissions releases from terrestrial systems as a result of warming have produced a situation much more foreboding than envisioned a little over seven years ago when the Kyoto Protocol came into force. This is true especially in the Arctic where there is evidence of acceleration of Greenland glacial melting with implications for coastal areas across the planet and of loss of summer sea ice with potential effects both on ocean circulation patterns and weather in areas well outside the Arctic. There are also some disturbing signs that the rapid warming underway in the Arctic may also be speeding release of methane previously trapped in the tundra, lake bottoms and ocean sediments. This could significantly amplify the warming directly associated with human activity.
There are a few hopeful developments, however, as national and industrial leaders gather for another major conference in Rio de Janeiro just twenty years after the historic 1992 Earth Summit. Although governments of its two Northern neighbors seem to be flagging in their climate protection actions, the Government of Mexico has enacted climate protection legislation as strong as in any OECD member nation. Most heartening, however, may be the rapid movement of the industrial and financial sector worldwide into aggressive and innovative sustainability efforts that go well past window dressing and public relations to contribute billions to corporate bottom lines. Corporate participation at this year's Rio conference will in some ways offset the seemingly tenuous commitments of many governments.
The US environmental Life Cycle Assessment standard being developed under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) could prove to be most promising climate protection action since the negotiation and signing of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Although a voluntary set of environmental accounting rules, the ANSI draft standard seeks to address many limitations of the Kyoto agreement, laying a groundwork for valuation of reductions of emissions of black carbon and tropospheric ozone forming compounds, potentially increasing incentives for reductions in emissions of methane, establishing an Arctic Regional Warming Indicator and Indicators for Ocean Acidification and Ocean Warming.
The ANSI Standard that is likely to be promulgated later this year after public comments have been addressed and responded to should accelerate the movement of the US corporate sustainability community to pioneer in integrating life cycle analysis into long term corporate planning. It also may within two to three years form the core of an ISO Life Cycle Assessment Standard. The ANSI process has earned great respect internationally and ANSI standards have shaped many of the standards of the International Standards Organization (ISO). In anticipation of the adoption of a robust and effective ANSI Standard and Arctic Regional Warming Indicator, the Climate Institute and such other environmental groups as the National Wildlife Federation, Worldwatch Institute, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Environmental and Energy Study Institute, and American Indian Alaska Native Climate Change Working Group, leading climate scientists and leading life cycle and forestry groups are collaborating to lay the basis for near term Arctic mitigation actions through an Arctic Climate Action Registry. Together with the adoption of the central thrust of the ANSI Standard this should provide new energies to the climate protection effort.
Commentary by John C. Topping, Jr.
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