The Kyoto Accords — and Hope — Are Expiring

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Color China Photo / AP

Smoke billows from a chemical factory in the Chinese city of Nanjing. China is an engine of both global economic growth and new carbon emissions for the past 15 years

There's one absolutely foolproof way to cut carbon emissions: economic collapse. After the fall of communism in the early 1990s led to economic depression in much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, carbon output in those countries fell like a stone. In fact, greenhouse-gas emissions in Russia didn't return to 1990 levels until well into the 21st century. It's no secret why: as long as most of our energy comes from fossil fuels, economic growth will generally be linked to emissions growth.

That's why — for environmentalists at least — the great economic crash of 2008 contained a flicker of good news, with reduced carbon output providing a brief breather that could give the international community a chance to come up with a meaningful path to a lower-carbon economy. Even better, this was happening just in time for the big U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.

Of course, things didn't exactly work out. Just about all the Copenhagen attendees got was frostbite from standing out in the cold, waiting to get into the overcrowded conference center — and we're now paying the price for that lack of results. A new report released by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory shows that we've already blown through our climate time-out, with global carbon emissions jumping by a record 564 million tons in 2010 from 2009. That's an increase of 6%. Just in case that single-digit increase sounds small, consider that 564 million tons is greater than the individual emissions of all but three countries: the U.S., China and India. This is actually worse than the worst-case scenario put forward by energy experts just four years ago.

All of this is backdrop to the annual U.N. climate-change summit, which begins at the end of the month in the South African city of Durban. The yearly confabs have grown a lot quieter since Copenhagen, as both attendance and expectations for meaningful global action shrank. But this year's meeting is more notable than most: 2012 marks the official end of the Kyoto Protocol, which required developed nations that ratified the deal to cut their carbon emissions by an average of 8% below 1990 levels. Right now there is very little indication that the world will be able to come up with any deal to follow up Kyoto when it expires.

It's not that the Kyoto Protocol hasn't been followed; the developed nations that ratified the deal have largely been able to make the required cuts. But Kyoto, of course, never included the U.S. — which signed the agreement in 1997 but didn't ratify it. More importantly, it excluded developing countries as well. That includes India and China — the engines of both global economic growth and new carbon emissions for the past 15 years.

Indeed, developing nations as a group now account for more than 50% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. That's why an extension of the Kyoto Protocol as it's currently formulated — which is what the developing world wants — would do little to slow the pace of warming. For its part, the U.S. has called on developing nations like China to accept mandatory action on carbon emissions, but given the total political paralysis in Washington on climate, that looks more than a little hypocritical. All in all, it's a formula for another year of good intentions at best, disingenuous posturing at worst, and zero results on the international stage, even as carbon keeps rising and the earth keeps warming.

Why, at a moment when nearly every government accepts that climate change is a threat, are we actually going backward? There's no shortage of groups to blame: the fossil-fuel lobby, the global-warming-is-a-hoax wing nuts, the compliant media, the Exxon tiger. I wish I knew. But the reality is that the problem of decarbonizing is much, much harder than we thought it was — and getting harder every day. No matter how brightly the climate warning lights flash red, after all, unemployment in the U.S. still sits at 9% and Europe is in even greater economic turmoil. We need growth to get people employed, and in that environment, emissions control look like a luxury.

There's been a lot of talk recently that the world is finally facing an economic reckoning — a final past-due bill for those years of living so far beyond our means. The truth is we're facing a climate reckoning as well. The two are fatally intertwined — and they're going to be impossible to solve separately, if they can be solved at all.