Is Kyoto dead?

(Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, ‘Time to ditch Kyoto’, Nature, 449, 973-5 (25 October 2007); URL: [accessed 27 October 2007].) This short article has attracted attention around the world. Its thesis is that Kyoto is a dangerous distraction. It hasn’t worked, and its successor will not succeed either if it follows the same principles. Kyoto’s proponents have ignored its failures and exaggerated its effectiveness. It is worse than useless because it has stifled discussion of alternatives. However, their thesis is buttressed by two observations which are not accurate. They say that the International Energy Agency is predicting that world energy demand will double by 2030. It does not; it predicts a rise of just over 50%. Second, the paper states that the BP annual Statistical Review says that a likely global carbon price will not be high enough to induce major change. It does not; BP might think this, but its latest Statistical Review (referenced in the text) does not say this.

Like generals fighting the previous war, Kyoto’s originators based its design on the successful treaties on ozone depletion, acid rain and nuclear weapons. These problems were much more amenable to global regulation and the sharing of burdens was much more politically feasible. The authors of this paper suggest that policy makers should move away from treaties that try to put a cap on world emissions.

Prins and Rayner say that we need new techniques for getting a grip on the carbon problem. And, second, we need to work out how we need to adapt when severe climate changes arrive.

Their proposals for replacements for Kyoto are short and unspecific. In summary, they believe that the world needs ‘genuine’ emissions markets, not artificial constructs like Kyoto, and these markets must evolve gradually from local experiments. They mention approvingly some of the voluntary carbon markets that have grown up in the US. I think this faith in small informal markets is wholly misplaced. What possible reason would persuade a major polluter to participate?

The authors tell us we need to invest more in public R+D in clean technologies. In this they mirror Bjørn Lomborg (see the discussion of his book Cool It in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #3). They support messy public policies rather than ones that go for what they disparagingly describe as ‘elegant’ solutions. They see a role for measures such as mandatory technology standards (perhaps such as mile per gallon regulation on cars). The ideas they present are sketchy and unconvincing.

Many of us think that Kyoto and its successor are worth supporting as one of a package of measures. It is, after all, the only measure that we have currently got other than European ETS. Does it distract from finding other tools? I don’t see any evidence for the authors’ pessimism. Can it be merged with other global and local measures? Yes it can. No one pretends Kyoto is perfect, but because it tried to distribute the pain of emissions reduction reasonably fairly, it was a start. We can build on it; we need not destroy it.