With the Kyoto protocol in force, we now need to focus on how to reduce emissions further

The Kyoto protocol entered into force last month and industrialised countries, with the notable exceptions of the US and Australia, are now legally bound to reduce their emissions of six greenhouse gases.

In the weeks before the protocol came into force there was still debate over the reality of climate change. The Scientific Alliance, a non-profit organisation for scientists and non-scientists committed to rational discussion and debate, questioned climate change predictions at a meeting in January (see page 13). In a report published in December 2004, the alliance recommended stepping back and considering all possible consequences of climate change and the measures to prevent it rather than use the ’precautionary principle’ as a justification for the Kyoto protocol.

The vast majority of studies and data support the argument that greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, but could this be because most of the funding, and therefore research, is aimed at proving that climate change exists, as the alliance suggests? This is an interesting question but there is no getting away from the fact that there is an enormous body of data and evidence that shows that climate change is a reality.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reviewed the scientific, technical and socio-economic aspects of climate change and has concluded that there is strong evidence that climate change due to human emissions of greenhouse gases is already occurring and that future emissions are likely to raise global average temperatures by 1.4-5.8?C by the end of the century.

A recent report by the International Climate Change Task Force, an alliance of three think-tanks in the US, Australia and the UK, argues that even a 2?C rise could take the planet past the point of no return. If these data are correct, we can’t afford to debate their veracity and wait until we are 100 per cent certain before we act. Political pressure is needed.

The UK government has put climate change at the heart of its presidencies of the G8 and European Union this year. It also held an international meeting, Avoiding dangerous climate change, in February to examine the long-term implications of climate change. The meeting concluded that major investment is needed to minimise future impacts and to cope with impacts that can’t be avoided in the near to medium term.

While the Kyoto protocol is not the whole solution, it is an important first step, not just in reducing greenhouse emissions but because of its international nature. The reductions as a result of Kyoto will be small; targets are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels. Some scientists say that reductions as high as 80 per cent might be needed.

As Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United National Environment Programme, speaking as the protocol came into force, said, we need to move ’towards the even deeper cuts in greenhouse gases necessary to stabilise the world’s climate’.

With the protocol now in force, governments need to focus reducing emissions further and getting the US and Australia to take part.

Karen Harries-Rees, editor