How much would carbon emissions increase if Kyoto expired?

Last post I said that maybe we should just let the Kyoto Protocol die.  If Kyoto was a good agreement to start off with, I think it should be maintained.  But it isn’t.  If Kyoto is likely to lead to a substantive agreement, I think it should be maintained.  But it doesn’t seem to be.  My idea: start over.  Let the Kyoto Protocol expire and start progress on a new first agreement that has two main provisions: 1. Common responsibility means not increasing carbon emissions without any efforts and 2. clear funding mechanism to help developing countries meet that goal.

I want to ask a more important question today: What would have happened if the Kyoto protocol had been expired at the Doha climate negotiations a few weeks ago?  At the Doha negotiations states agreed to two things (pretty much): 1. extend Kyoto until 2020 and 2. set up funding for climate disaster relief to developing states.  I think the first was done because of fear of what a world without Kyoto would look like and the second is a third best outcome (when you can’t get funding for mitigation and you can’t get funding for adaptation…you get inefficient disaster relief).

Let’s critically examine the first aspect: fear of what a world without Kyoto would mean has led to its extension.  If Kyoto expired, states would be generally free to set their own emission decisions and it may undermine some efforts by states, possibly those beset by environmental problems, to actually try and adhere.  Secondarily (and I suspect this is the bigger fear in European delegates) is that if Kyoto expires it will make secondary agreements harder to develop.

Part 1: What will happen to carbon emissions?

To think about this, I did some very simple thinking.  The question is this: If Kyoto went away this year, who would reverse their efforts at decreasing carbon and what would be the impact of those?

Data: I used data on emissions put together in a great way by the Guardian in June of this year.  It is emissions per country for 1980-2010 (or later if the country came into existence at a later date).  With that, I then took the April 2011 Gallup survey of 111 countries and looked at percentage of respondents in each country who considered climate change to be human caused.

Assumptions: Here’s my thoughts.  If a country wants to leave the Kyoto protocol now, they can.  Example: Canada. The determinant for whether a country leaves Kyoto targets or not is dependent upon (in this order) domestic politics then regional organizations, then worldwide climate condemnation.  So, if there is one person who decides whether the country is going to leave the Kyoto they first look at domestic concerns, then whether there are regional concerns (is climate change effort part of free trade system?), and finally they consider international response.  A country will leave Kyoto if a small percentage of the population believe climate change is human caused, and if they are not part of regional trade agreements that are connected to climate change efforts, and if they do not have a reputation for being an international environmental scofflaw internationally.  If any of these conditions are not met (if domestic awareness is high, etc), the assumption is that they will continue working on Kyoto targets.  So, if Kyoto expired, what is the likelihood of them giving up their efforts?

Who leaves?  Based on these simple assumptions and the data above, I believe the following countries would be likely to flaunt any expiration of Kyoto by ending any pretense to reach Kyoto targets: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Botswana, Senegal, Armenia, South Africa, Afghanistan, Chad, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Nigeria, Guyana, Georgia, Haiti, Iceland, Iraq, Burundi, Saudi Arabia, Guinea, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Togo, Zambia, Rwanda, Singapore, Benin, Norway, Belarus, Moldova, Mauritania, Nepal, Namibia, Vietnam.  That totals 2,250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2010.  That is about 1/4th of the carbon emissions from the U.S. in 2010.

But how many of those countries are required to do something under Kyoto or are currently reducing carbon emissions?  Every single one of them was given no targets in Kyoto to reduce emissions.  Most are developing countries that were given no targets in the Kyoto agreement.  Those that were given targets were given targets to limit the amount of increase they had and not to cut emissions at all.  Iceland has a plus 10 percentage from 1990 levels in Kyoto.  Which means their goal is to only increase their emissions by 10% (They increased more than that by the way).  Norway was given a plus 1 percentage in Kyoto (They increased a lot more than that).

In addition, not a single country on the list is doing great efforts to reduce emissions.  Any emission reduction (in Zambia or Moldova, for instance) are probably a result of wider scale economic downturns.  So, if every country that could easily escape Kyoto’s requirements did immediately after it was allowed to lapse, that would cause no significant change in worldwide carbon emissions.  The states which are likely to revel in the ending of the Kyoto agreement are those which are either 1. expected not to cut emissions in Kyoto or 2. those which have not participated significantly in cutting emissions through efforts.  So, if Kyoto expired, some countries would free themselves, but probably mostly the countries that are free to start with.

In other words, if Kyoto expired and the EU carbon efforts remain in tact, we should not expect any noticeable increase in carbon emissions as a result.

There are two conditions in which we should expect that Kyoto expiration would change this scenario: if the EU system collapses or if early lock-in efforts, which  have been undertaken in countries that haven’t shown results yet but will soon, are undermined.

Collapse of the EU system: The probability of collapsing the EU climate system is fairly unlikely.  But, I do think it is possible if Kyoto went away.  The most dangerous would be if one or more key states withdrew from the EU system with the opening at the expiration of Kyoto.  So, if the second assumption is suspended in the discussion above, we could see UK, Estonia, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Lithuania, and Austria all as potential defectors.  If each of these countries completely abandoned efforts to reach Kyoto targets we would expect an increase around 70-100 million metric tons.  However, more importantly, these states may reduce trading and other efforts in Europe causing general reduction in the ability of those policies to work.  With domestic pressure and slow policy response, we should expect the core to remain and this should keep even some of the above countries around because they receive significant benefits (many are carbon trading exporters in Europe.  We should thus expect that the expiration of Kyoto is a low probability event with consequences limited by domestic politics and carbon trading systems.

Reversal of potentially good policies: It is possible to argue that there are some efforts taken by states which have not shown impacts yet but which could be reversed reducing any positive impacts.  If these exist, no one seems to have identified them.  Indeed in the UNEP 2012 Emissions Gap report it is clear that current efforts are unlikely to start having a larger impact.  It is more probable that the impact is likely to fall short unless additional efforts are undertaken.  Let’s also consider this a low probability possibility at this point but one which might occur.

To summarize: If Kyoto expired, we should not expect emissions to increase significantly unless it dismantles the EU system or reverses policies with delayed effects (both of which are low probability events).

Part 2: What will happen to carbon negotiations?

It seems unfathomable today to think about progress on Ozone or acid rain in Europe without those first breakthrough agreements setting up the further agreements.  How likely is it and how big an impact would it have for climate negotiations if Kyoto expired?

I think it is very unlikely to think that Kyoto expiration would cause any serious disruption to climate negotiations.  Although often times the Kyoto is considered a stepping stone, it does not appear to have made secondary stones easier.  Negotiations have largely departed from a world based on Kyoto to a world of other focuses.  It seems like breaking away from Kyoto is as likely to lead to the next substantive negotiation as keeping Kyoto alive is.

The unceremonious, quick extension of Kyoto seems to be a clear sign that negotiators know this.  They seem to understand that the next agreement will be a second foundational agreement and not merely an extension of Kyoto.  The issue then is that working on a new foundational agreement may be messy with the old foundational agreement still around.  (Future post: What break through could have been possible without Kyoto hanging around at Doha?) Working toward the same end, just with a clean slate may allow some of the issues (like funding or common responsibility) to be dealt with in a clear and efficient manner.  Building a governance arrangement without Kyoto can allow a more coherent and less complex, jigsaw system to arise.  Negotiations have already become overly segmented in climate negotiations and keeping Kyoto and the next governance system around may be a recipe for additional problems.

The result is that it seems at least equally likely that Kyoto expiration will result in a better next agreement than that it will result in a halt to negotiations.  In fact, since we cannot assume that there will be any reduction in domestic pressure that it is actually more likely that letting Kyoto expire can allow progress to focus on a brand new system rather than a system of mixed pieces of Kyoto, new system and other orders.

(One side note, I’ve been working on here on Rio+20 about how small, jigsaw governance could be the future for effective global environmental politics. This is not a renunciation of that position; but, instead simply saying that that system would be assisted by a good, formal climate change agreement and framework. International treaties and agreements are not aided by a stalled system that will be incoherent if/when finished.  So the argument is simply that in order to get a good international agreement, which is one piece of international action that needs to happen on climate change, we need to think about how best to get there.)

Conclusion The costs appear to be significantly lower than a first glance would presume.  Europe is unlikely to defect entirely from the climate change system and negotiations will persist regardless of what happened to Kyoto. A few countries would probably celebrate in the end of Kyoto and increase carbon without regard; but those are mostly the countries doing that anyway.  The costs from letting Kyoto expire are small or mitigated by other factors, the benefits are risky, for sure, but are at least worthy of consideration.

One final note is that, as I mentioned above, this might already be the path we are on and negotiators merely extended Kyoto to be safe and have moved on.  No statements are being made saying this, but it appears likely with the extension of Kyoto taking up little formal discussion, that this is what may be happening.  If true, the next Conference of the Parties will send clearer signals.



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