Kyoto Protocol Comes into Force; Debate on Global Warming Continues

February 17, 2005

The “Kyoto Protocol” or Treaty, a global agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gasses, has come into force seven years after it was established. So far 141 countries, accounting for 55 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, have ratified the treaty, which pledges to reduce the polluting emissions by 5.2 percent by 2012.

The United States, which emits more greenhouse gasses than any other country, is notably absent, as are India, China and Brazil. The Bush Administration withdrew consideration of the Treaty in 2000 on the grounds that the agreement is basically flawed and its implementation would prove too costly for U.S. industry.

The Treaty might not have come into force at all, except for a last minute decision in November by the Russian government to accept it. That brought the number of countries who had signed up the accord above the 55 percent threshold required for its implementation.

From all the hype and controversy surrounding it, one would think the Kyoto accords will somehow fundamentally alter the world’s climate. They won’t. Whether they favor or oppose reducing greenhouse gas emissions, most experts recognize that the Treaty is only a very small first step in trying to reduce them. For the most part these same experts have broadly agreed that the world is getting warmer. They have, however, notably failed to agree on whether man’s pollution of the environment is a major cause, a minor cause, or so incidental that its affects are negligible.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has no doubts on the major role played by pollutants in heating up the planet. Writing on the occasion of the Kyoto accords coming into force he stated: “We need to take this unprecedented political momentum to propel us into a new effort to move beyond the targets and time-tables agreed under the Kyoto Protocol towards the even deeper cuts in greenhouse gases necessary to stabilize the world’s climate.”

He cited a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific body which advises governments, established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization. It concluded that global temperatures could rise by as much as 5.8° C (7.9°F) by 2100. Other reports have been even more dire, predicting higher and more rapid increases in global temperatures. Toepfer noted a report from the International Climate Change Task Force, an alliance of three think-tanks based in America, Australia and the United Kingdom, which argued “that even a two degree Centigrade rise could take the planet past a point of ‘no return’.” He added that the reports “make terrifying reading, a vision of a planet spinning out of control.”

While the discussions of scientists and politicians may seem remote from the concerns of the insurance industry, they are nonetheless vitally important. Both Munich Re and Swiss Re, the world’s two largest reinsurers, have long recognized the threats posed by global warming. Natural weather related catastrophes (hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, blizzards, droughts, floods, heat waves, cold waves and other phenomena) are becoming increasingly catastrophic. Both companies have task forces working on analyzing why this is happening and how to deal with it. Their conclusion: Global warming plays a major role in causing severe weather events, and polluting the atmosphere could be a major factor in increasing temperatures around the world. These events increase both human and economic losses.

Munich Re sent two top-ranking experts as delegates to the World Conference on Disaster Reduction, held January 18-22 in Kobe, Japan. The company issued a bulletin, which noted: “Climate change as the factor causing a higher risk of natural catastrophes was marginalised at this conference. This was due not only to the discussions about tsunami losses and early detection of tsunamis (which dominated the conference) but also to the strategy of the US delegation, which was clearly aimed at avoiding the issue of climate change wherever possible. However, owing to the commitment and determination of the small island states in particular, climate change found its way as an important factor into the concluding documents.”

An increasing body of scientific evidence indicates that ignoring the threats from global warming is becoming harder and harder to do. To what extent polluting greenhouse gasses are causing it may continue to be debated, but its reality is incontrovertible, as are the human and economic damages it continues to cause.

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