Kyoto agreement on greenhouse gases receives mixed response

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 03 January 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:7
  1. Tessa Richards
  1. BMJ

    The eleventh hour agreement that industrialised countries must reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2% has received a mixed reaction.

    On the face of it, the deal—reached at the third United Nations convention on climate change in Kyoto—looks good. After 10 days of wrangling by the 2200 official delegates and thousands of observers and lobbyists from 160 countries, a legally binding agreement was finally reached on 11 December. The agreement aims to lower overall emissions from six greenhouse gases by 2008-12. Cuts in the three most important greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – will be measured against 1990 values.

    Assuming that the agreement is ratified by national governments and that the 38 countries that have agreed to curb emissions do so, then the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions should be nearer 10% because many industrialised countries have not yet met their 1992 (non-legally binding) targets. If the cuts are compared to the projected figures for 2010 without any control measures then the drop approaches 30%. Hence the upbeat response of the Argentinian ambassador, Raul Estrada-Oyela, who chaired the negotiations: “This agreement will have a real impact on the problem of greenhouse gas emission.”

    Greenpeace, however, called the agreement “a tragedy and a farce that would do nothing to protect the world from dangerous climate change.” But it conceded that the treaty marked a turning point and sent “a signal to governments to expand renewable energy industries and to phase out the fossil fuels that are damaging the climate.”

    “From the scientific point of view the 5.2% reduction is undeniably inadequate,” said Andrew Haines, professor of primary health care at University College London Medical School. “But given that few of us expected that any agreement would be reached at Kyoto, the deal represents progress—not least because the United States, which came to the meeting determined to concede nothing, has done so.”

    There are, however, several problems with the agreement. Firstly, there are serious doubts that the US—which is responsible for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions—will ratify the treaty. The major oil companies and car manufacturers hold huge political sway over Congress, and their advertising campaigns have effectively downplayed the effects of climate change in the public eye.


    The United States may not ratify the treaty


    Secondly, at the last minute the convention accepted an emissions trading system which will allow rich countries, such as the US, to pay poorer ones to keep their emissions down rather than lowering their own.

    Thirdly, the meeting failed to get even a voluntary commitment from developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, despite the fact that in the next decade their emissions—especially those in China—will rise steeply.

    The ideal percentage cut to prevent global warming is not known, but it has been suggested that over the next century emissions would have to be reduced and kept at about half the current amount. But wherever the ideal lies, even the most modest of targets will not be met without a dramatic restructuring of energy sources.

    Professor Haines said that the scientific community must develop better monitoring systems to estimate fuel consumption and to assess the pace and impact of global warming. “In parallel with the global observing systems of climate change we need to monitor health indicators and patterns of disease. For example, recent reports from Africa and elsewhere show that people are getting malaria at higher altitudes than ever before.”

    Main points of Kyoto agreement

    • Overall reduction of greenhouse gas emission by industrialised countries to 5.2% below 1990 concentrations by 2008-12

    • The United States to reduce emissions by 7%, the European Union by 8%, and Japan by 6%

    • Russia and the Ukraine to stabilise emissions at current levels

    • Australia may increase emissions by 8%, Iceland by 10%, Norway by 1%

    • An emissions trading system will allow industrialised countries to trade emissions credits

    The long term effects of climate change on global temperature and weather patterns and their likely impact on health are attracting increasing attention. These include changes in vectorborne and infectious diseases, adverse effects on food supplies resulting in malnutrition and death, population displacement as a result of rising sea levels, and rising rates of respiratory problems (BMJ 1997;315:805-9).

    A recent study estimates that if no action is taken to control climate change, by the year 2020 around 700000 avoidable deaths will occur annually as a result of additional exposure to atmospheric particulate matter (Lancet 1997;350:1341-9). Taking a scenario in which developed countries reduce greenhouse gas concentrations to 15% below 1990 levels by 2010 and developing countries reduce projected emissions by 10% by 2010, the study estimated that 8 million deaths worldwide could be prevented in the first 20 years of the next century.

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