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.
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.