The Kyoto meeting on climate change was a small triumph for the international community and a benchmark in the process of consensus. But much bigger challenges lie ahead, for scientists and politicians alike.
Who emerges with most credit from the Kyoto summit? The United States has clearly gone further to achieve a deal — agreeing to a 7 per cent cut in its emissions without quite securing the involvement of the developing countries in the project — than its detractors had envisaged. President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore would have taken much of the blame if the meeting had collapsed for not standing up more firmly to the fossil-fuel and automobile lobbies, and can take credit for defyi the pessimists and allowing it to succeed.
The conference chairman, Raul Estrada Ouyela of Argentina, deserves congratulation for his witty and successful browbeating of delegates. Australia, India, China and Saudi Arabia deserve credit for not derailing the talks. Bouquets, too, to the Japanese hosts for picking the UK deputy prime minister, John Prescott, for a diplomatic role which he amply fulfilled, and for the fact that the agreement that emerged is close to Japan's compromise proposal.
Now for the political reverberations. A tentative agreement has been reached between the developed countries, but more work — and some flexibility from the developing countries — is necessary before the next meeting of the parties in Buenos Aires next year if a full treaty is to be ratified.
As the Clinton administration attempts to prepare the ground for ratification by the US Senate, the onus will fall on scientists to convince both Senate and the wider public that scientific knowledge of climate change is sufficiently robust for the economic upheaval required to implement the targets agreed at Kyoto. Given the timetable of Clinton's implementation plan, researchers have at most five years left to do what they have not quite achieved in the past ten, and convince a wider audience in the United States that the science of global climate change represents such a foundation. Most senators — like most of the people they represent — have yet to pay enough attention to form a well-founded view on the matter.
Over the next few years, some of the toughest scientific challenges will be in the areas of emissions measurements, verification and regional impacts. A new report issued last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The Regional Impacts of Climate Change, does a useful job in spelling out regional, ecological and hydrological sensitivities to global warming. But it is also clear that several years, at least, of development of models and computing will be required before regional predictions can inspire confidence.
It is salutary to realize that, all else being equal, whatever was agreed at Kyoto could make only a small and undetectable fraction of a degree difference in the average temperature in 2100. That makes Kyoto's achievements important more as a concentrator of minds. And Kyoto suggests that a top-down approach to emissions reduction, even with more determination on all sides, will never be sufficiently effective to yield the scale of reductions that models suggest is required. But it is questionable whether market forces will also contribute much, even if energy prices were to rise. Even where there is a clear and immediate threat, such as malaria, the combined forces of politics, education and business have proved thoroughly inadequate in alleviating the problem.
If the developed countries are serious about meeting the targets they have set for themselves — and readers should note that the summit delivered no penalties for overshooting — they will encourage very considerable additional public and private sector investments in the research and development of new energy sources and energy conservation techniques. One of Kyoto's achievements is to have highlighted the need to go much further in that direction than is at present envisaged.