As 2017 drew to a close, it occurred to me that I had unconsciously been looking forward to 2018 as an important year for a very long time.
After a boozy New Year’s Eve and a little recovery time, I realized why: 2018 was supposed to be the beginning of the compliance period for the Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement to reduce the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. The agreement was hammered out in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. A group of participating countries agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2018-2020.
It also got me thinking about the effects of global warming on the wine industry I’ve seen in the 10 years I’ve been an importer, and what the wine world I import from is going to look like in the future. I think that Kyoto was a huge missed opportunity, one we may not have again, and not just for the wine world. Feel free to skip the next five or six paragraphs if you want the wine thoughts without the history. (Don’t worry, I’m used to people ignoring my geeky enviro ramblings. You won’t hurt my feelings.)
As I’ve mentioned before, I spent many years working for an environmental advocacy organization. During the Kyoto negotiations and for a couple of years afterward, I did a ton of research on ways the U.S. could meet some of its goals without cost – that is, things that could be done that would pay for themselves in terms of reduced energy and materials use. My first calculations indicated that we could get at least halfway there without cost, and quickly. That would leave plenty of time for innovations that could take care of the rest. Heck, we were pretty confident that the U.S. could easily exceed Kyoto goals, even though the country’s electricity use kept climbing year after year.
And it wasn’t just us green card-holding, tree-hugging weirdos who thought so. Even leading conservative writers at the time argued that we could easily meet the targets. If not with one hand tied behind our back, then at the very least with minimal economic disruption. Of course, there were plenty of dissenting voices. The principal argument on the right was that developing countries didn’t have binding targets, so why should we stick our neck out if China and India didn’t have to. And there were some on the left who thought Kyoto wouldn’t do enough and wanted something bigger.
Ultimately, nothing was done on a national level, despite great hopes and several near-misses. While the U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol during the Clinton administration, it was never submitted to the Senate for ratification by either the Clinton or Bush administrations. Without the U.S.’s participation as the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter (both in annual amounts and cumulatively), reductions by other participating countries would have much less impact.*
One of the near misses was particularly disappointing. Despite some bipartisan support, we couldn’t even get a common-sense measure requiring U.S. industrial facilities to report their greenhouse gas emissions, something facilities in Canada and Mexico already had to do. The idea was that if the public knew precisely which facilities released the most greenhouse gasses, there could be pressure on them to make reductions and for the industries to develop best practices. Precisely the kind of competition-inducement underpinning the free market, or so we thought. But industry has a history of reflexively fighting disclosure, and they were helped by other events. In the post-9/11 years industrial facilities were increasingly seen as potential security targets, and the idea of public greenhouse gas reporting was dropped. (I spoke with NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce about Canada and Mexico’s inventories, as well as the lack of one in the U.S., back in 2007. Nothing has changed since then. Amazingly, the story is still up.)
By the time President Obama was elected, the Kyoto Protocol was seen as a thing of the past. Instead, countries including the U.S. began working on an agreement that included binding targets for countries that hadn’t had to set them for Kyoto. This became the Paris Accord – adopted at the end of 2015, with a baseline of 2005 and reduction goals for 2020 and 2025. But since U.S. emissions grew substantially between 1990 and 2005, even the relatively ambitious goals of the Paris Accord still meant that the U.S. would be emitting more in 2020 than if we had stuck to Kyoto.** I have no doubt that reduction strategies to meet the Kyoto targets would have resulted in getting us further than the Paris Accord’s 2025 goal as well, because we’d have laid the foundation for innovation instead of now playing catch-up.
(Of course, while ambitious, the Paris Accord still also had to be submitted to the Senate for ratification. Before that happened, the Trump administration took the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, so we currently have no national greenhouse gas emissions targets, official or not.)
With the start of 2018, I decided to take a look at what might have been. Had we achieved emissions 10 percent below 1990, our current emissions would be about 13 percent lower than EPA’s latest estimate of our current levels. But that’s not the whole story. If we’d started the work of making reductions in 1998, we’d have put 20 percent less greenhouse gasses in total into the air over 20 years – equal to emitting nothing for four years. If you combine that with reductions from the other developed countries that signed Kyoto in 1997, it’s staggering to see what we could have accomplished, but didn’t.
Looking at the impacts in my current wine-related career is equally sobering. Back in 2003, I started to read emerging studies on wine regions in the northern hemisphere moving northward because of global warming. I later realized that some wine producers had been sounding the alarm on this since the 1990s. The studies documented the migration and made general predictions that it would continue more rapidly. Activists in states with relatively new wine industries hoped that the potential economic impact could help persuade policymakers that greenhouse gas reduction goals were worthwhile. But the studies also concluded that it was impossible to predict what would happen in microclimate areas. Since virtually every wine-producing area can lay claim to some sort of microclimate, it was easy for national policymakers to ignore the predictions couched in modifiers. And while the wine industry is important to many states’ economies, it doesn’t have the same optics as even a single industrial facility employing thousands. Despite the fact that we didn’t have to choose between them.
Obviously, there are way too many variables to make specific statements here. With China’s emissions increases it’s impossible to predict what the impact of U.S. reductions would have been. But there’s widespread agreement that global warming has exacerbated extreme weather events. And with the detrimental impacts of extreme weather on wine production in France and the U.S. this past year, I wonder if we could have helped avoid some of the damage by starting to act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 years ago. Britain, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington State, and other current and emerging wine-producing regions are benefitting from the northward migration, and it’s hard to argue that quality wine from more places isn’t a good thing. But that could change as global warming accelerates, and more quickly than we imagine.
It’s not inconceivable that certain wine regions will suffer greatly – particularly if they rely on irrigation. Even those that don’t rely heavily on irrigation have to contend with the ability of vines to adapt to widely changing conditions that haven’t existed before, assuming they can. If they can’t, we will definitely have to redraw the map of the wine world as we know it.
Of course, people constantly wax nostalgic about the “good ol’ days,” especially wine drinkers. Back when I was a young wino I used to roll my eyes at older wine lovers telling me that I missed out on the glories of the 19xx vintages from Blah-Blah. But I’ve come to realize that some of the nostalgia is about a sense of place in addition to the wine itself. With the threats posed by global warming, it’s not hard to imagine that I’ll be yammering on to wine newbies decades younger about how they missed the great Bordeaux and California vintages of the 1980s. And some of the Rhônes from the late 1990s, 2003, and 2007 — assuming they’re not producing them in Scotland with climate migration, that is. (Perhaps Glasgow and its suburbs will become the new Châteauneuf du Pape.) And especially one of my favorite wine memories, the 1990 Veuve Cliquot Grande Dame.
It’s a shame, really. Because while I definitely see myself as a “Grande Dame” someday, spouting wine information at will, I’d much rather be extolling the virtues of the wines of the future rather than just looking back on the glories of the past. And I hope I won’t still be regretting that we passed up an opportunity to take the first easy steps laid out in 1997.
*The U.S. was the world’s largest annual greenhouse gas emitter through 2005, and cumulatively is still the largest. China exceeded the U.S. for annual emissions in 2006.
**2005 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 15% higher than 1990 levels. Although the 2020 Paris Agreement goal was for emissions 17% below 2005 levels, this is still six percent higher than the Kyoto goal for 2020.
I’ll be traveling to Portugal and France in the next couple of weeks, so I’ll have some new recipes in future posts. I’m now writing up an interview I did with David Leite, author of The New Portuguese Cookbook. David is also the creator of Leite’s Culinaria, a fantastic cooking site. He was really fun to talk with. And unlike all the other cookbook authors I’ve interviewed so far, his family actually made their own wine.
Finally, back in late August I was interviewed by Jackie Beyer for the Organic Gardener Podcast. Jackie told me she’ll be putting the interview up soon, and I’ll give you the link as soon as I have it (providing I’m not cringing in horror at the sound of my own voice, that is…)