Maybe we should just let the Kyoto Protocol die…

The Kyoto Protocol has been on life support since 2001.  And the fear of having to build governance in a world without it has made us keep it going for another 8 years.  But it wasn’t that good of an agreement in the first place, it obviously is a failure at this point, and it is far past time to ask whether it would be better to scrap it and start again.

Barry Saxifrage, a top-notch climate writer, recently produced this chart comparing global CO2 levels in parts per million to key meetings on the climate change negotiations timeline.

“Eighteen years of COP meetings, task forces, brinkmanship, declarations, policies, promises and protocols have not slowed the rise in global CO2 one tiny bit.” -Barry Saxifrage

Let’s imagine that everything goes right for Kyoto in the next few years: the U.S. signs the protocol, Europe meets its obligations, and common but differentiated responsibility actually means common effort by the developing world.  Will we see this chart change course or at least level off?

The answer is a firm No.  Europe and the U.S. are doing weak efforts at reducing emissions.  The U.S. is largely letting market forces reduce emissions, with the switch away from coal, and about half of Europe will hit the Kyoto targets.  Both of them have decoupled carbon emissions from economic growth.  But, the problem is what the problem was in 1997 when Kyoto was created; from James Traub, “The West has largely succeeded in bending downwards the curve of carbon emissions. But the developing world has not. Last year, China’s emissions rose 9.3 percent; India’s, 8.7 percent. China is now the world’s No. 1 source of carbon emissions, followed by the United States, the European Union, and India.”

This isn’t to say that the U.S. and Europe are immune from blame for Kyoto’s failures, they largely let the issue reach this point.  The U.S. unwillingness to be a leader on the issue meant that common but differentiated responsibility, the provision which allowed developing countries to commit to cutting emissions with no real targets like developed countries adopted, never got the chance to get working.  Europe’s do-it-yourself strategy convinced Russia to join the Kyoto protocol at the deadline, but similarly did not foster an environment for developing countries to agree to cuts.  And now that there is a widespread financial crisis, it seems unlikely that anyone is willing to actually spend the money to make common but differentiated responsibility work.

The result is Kyoto has done nothing in 15 years since its signature, and even in a best case scenario, it is unlikely to do anything in the next 8 years.

But what if it gets scrapped, won’t that be worse?  I don’t see how.  The U.S. system is largely now Kyoto-independent, although the agreement gets some nods in local, state, and regional initiatives, it is not a driver of efforts in the U.S.  In Europe, the Kyoto targets are enshrined in EU level efforts and national legislation.  If Kyoto had expired, these laws would be retained and the obligations could continue to exist.  Although I would expect one state in Eastern Europe or two to test a situation (Poland, probably) where Kyoto expires, the vast majority of countries won’t.  The political pressure in most countries comes domestically and international pressure has had little impact.

Why are people clinging to Kyoto then and keeping it alive on life support? I think there are two reasons: 1. Europe believes negotiations from an earlier agreement are easier.  When you have an agreement, the argument is that negotiators can work on key issues like funding, administration, and increasing provisions.  That worked on Ozone negotiations, WTO negotiations, EU negotiations…but it hasn’t worked on climate negotiations.  15 meetings since and obligations for developing countries have increased nothing, funding provisions have developed not at all, adaptation became an issue and went nowhere, and membership has largely been maintained.  Assumptions need to be questioned when there is constant evidence to the contrary and climate change requires us to rethink the idea that negotiations get better when there is a starting agreement. (There are more skeptical reasons for why Europe may invest so much in Kyoto, but I give them the benefit of the doubt). 2. The developing world likes common but differentiated responsibility.  Kyoto’s extension means the continuation of an agreement with no requirements on developing countries and they are unlikely to let that end.  Kyoto is a bad agreement, but it serves some interests very well (that was the point of the agreement when it was signed).

So, Kyoto is seen as a positive position by Europe (and probably AOSIS) for future negotiations and an advantageous position to the developing world.  But the chances of Kyoto having an effect are unlikely in the current array unless they get the U.S. involved and get requirements on the developing world.

The best strategy for achieving that outcome is to give up on Kyoto and let it lapse.  The Kyoto path is a dead end.  And it is just getting us farther from the right road at this point.  Ideally a new agreement would replace Kyoto and give it a proper sendoff.  But it is getting to the point where the best possibility of that is to let Kyoto lapse.

The situation could get worse without Kyoto existing, but it is hard to see exactly how that would get worse.  Europe, Australia, and Japan are locked in, the U.S. efforts are independent of Kyoto, and Kyoto has little effect on the rest of the world.  Maybe it is time to let it fade away and let us start over.

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3 thoughts on “Maybe we should just let the Kyoto Protocol die…

  1. Great post, one that I have been contemplating myself recently. Kyoto and global government action doesn’t seem to be producing the results we need. What do you think the alternative is? Can we rely on global government action in a new form?

    • Not an easy question, for sure. Right now we have three options: 1. Keep Kyoto alive and keep working. 2. Abandon Kyoto and start fresh. 3. Abandon international treaties entirely and look for alternative governance forms. The first is the process that Ozone negotiations used with a good first treaty and then good follow-up agreements. I think for it to work you need a good initial agreement, otherwise you do not get the follow-up treaties to actually make it work. That brings us to Kyoto, was it a good initial agreement? I think we have now 15 years saying that the Kyoto process has not convinced the U.S. to join nor developing countries (China, India, etc.) to agree that common responsibility means not increasing carbon emissions. I think that Kyoto may be constraining, at this point meaning that negotiations cannot move forward without redefining “common but differentiated responsibility” and having an agreement with financing to start with. I think of it like trying to find road directions using the wrong map, no matter how long you look at that map you aren’t going where you need to. So, we can either try to find a new map which might work or give up on maps and start using some other form of finding our way. I’m starting to think the best strategy is #2 just starting for a completely new arrangement: Negotiating positions in 2012 are different than 1997 and this might be able to yield the type of foundational agreement that Kyoto was supposed to be. I do think we can still trust in the treaty-based system and negotiations, but that we need some way to get out of the current impasse (which I think is 50% different positions and 50% Kyoto’s limitations). Starting over won’t be pretty (some states will take advantage of the situation, undoubtedly), but it may be necessary. If anyone knows for sure, let me know….I’d be very interested.

  2. Pingback: How much would carbon emissions increase if Kyoto expired? « Lullaby of the Commons

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