Transcending Kyoto

Time to move beyond the protocol's shadow

Published: Thursday 30 June 2005

Transcending Kyoto

-- Thanks to backroom deals between the European Union and the Russian Federation -- despite us intransigence -- the Kyoto Protocol on Global Climate Change finally came into force this February. Many believe that Kyoto's resuscitation is a defining moment in global climate policy. It may well turn out to be so, but I, for one, am not prepared to celebrate just yet.

Negotiated in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol had sought to curb growing carbon emissions in industrialised nations. Its specific goal, by the year 2010, was to reduce these by a total of five per cent below their 1990 emissions.

Any reduction in global emissions is welcome. But even if implemented fully, the protocol's targets would have made only a minor dent. With the us -- the world's largest carbon emitter -- stubbornly opposed to Kyoto, its potential is already impaired. It's also evident by now that even many of the ratifying nations won't meet targets. The Kyoto Protocol may well be remembered as a failure of imagination and ambition.

While the treaty may not substantially improve atmospheric carbon concentrations, Kyoto's coming into force is still important, given that its public failure would have stymied future global initiatives and disheartened climate activists seeking more profound global action. Kyoto's political legacy -- an insistence that no nation, however powerful, be allowed to veto global public interest -- is notable.

Thanks to us obduracy, the world has lost seven years. It's time we moved beyond the protracted politicking and allowed future policy to emerge from the shadow of the Kyoto architecture.

Globocop timeout us arguments about an inequitable protocol, because major developing countries weren't required to make emission reductions, is both insulting and dangerous. What began as a diversionary tactic for its own policy reticence, is now propagated even by us academia and non-governmental organisations, citing China and India's billion plus populations. Easy enough targets as anything multiplied by a billion becomes a huge number.

The truth is that the average American's emissions are nearly ten times as much carbon as the average Chinese and over 20 times as much as the average Indian. The us refusal to restrict emissions until China and India take on 'equitable' roles, is absurd. We cannot allow a diversion of focus from excessive emissions of industrialised nations to the marginal (survival) emissions of developing countries.

There is certainly a real need to involve the developing world in the effort to curb global emissions. Kyoto sought to do this through variants of emission trading schemes -- here investors from industrialised nations capitalise on cheaper emission reductions in developing countries. Even if it works, the clean development mechanism cannot be a long-term solution. In time, developing countries will use cheaper emission reductions themselves. The North cannot sidestep difficult decisions forever. Market mechanisms are a solution only if they lead to real, appropriate technological innovation, not mere emission shell games. Real contributions from developing countries will come not from cheap emission cuts, but from their ability to benefit from technological leaps in infrastructure and lifestyle decisions. We need a policy architecture with the right incentives for the right decisions.

Global commons What Kyoto has left unresolved is the question of allocating emission rights in an unequal world. Asking countries to reduce emissions by a percentage of current emissions won't work for developing countries. How do you ask someone emitting at nearly zero, to reduce emissions to absolutely zero? Why should a Boston resident consume more than someone in Bareilly?

The late Anil Agarwal had proposed a mechanism, whereby the atmosphere would be regarded as a global common, with a per capita allocation of emission rights and equal emission spaces. Nations can manage this system of allocations on the basis of past (1990) population levels. Nations that use more than allocated emissions would then rent 'emission space' from those using less than allocated emissions. Hopefully, a self-correcting market would evolve, with an equal incentive for over-emitters and under-emitters to maintain low emissions.

Adil Najam is a Convening Lead Author for the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change

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