Kyoto Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy

What would be the best outcome from Bali? It would be a post-Kyoto regime that ditches universalism with respect to mitigation efforts: Fewer than 20 countries are responsible for about 80% of the world’s emissions. It would make a serious commitment to technological innovation. And it would agree to spend as much time and money on adaptation as on mitigation.

…Adaptation is central to any serious climate response strategy. We have to deal with the amount of change to which the climate system is already committed due to past emissions, as well as the increasing amount of people and property that are already in harm’s way. Just as the Dutch built their dikes to survive in a hostile environment, the Bangladeshis need to be protected from storm surges and the Filipinos from flooding today.

For over a decade, adaptation was kept off the policy agenda by those who feared it would attenuate support for reducing emissions. Yet any reduction in greenhouse-gas concentrations would take decades. Adaptation has a faster response time cycle and a closer coupling with innovation and incentive structures. It thereby confers more protection more quickly on more people, especially the poor currently dependent on marginal ecosystems.

UPDATE: Because of its importance to understanding climate policy options, I’ve made a few edits to this December 2007 post, and moved it to the current date.

Roger Pielke, Jr. drew my attention to this Prins and Rayner WSJ op-ed this week – an argument for a balanced combination of adaptation and mitigation. This is a realistic assessment of the future of carbon concentrations, regardless of successful mitigation agreements – together with a promising policy approach that can avoid another Kyoto debacle.

This week in Bali, Indonesia, delegates are considering climate policy after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. We will witness a well-known human response to failure. Delegates will insist on doing more of what is not working: in this case more stringent emissions-reduction targets, and timetables involving more countries. A bigger and “better” Kyoto will be a bigger and worse failure.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was a symbolically important expression of concern about climate change. It sought to manipulate a basket of diverse greenhouse gases and all their sources. It required its signatories to show demonstrable progress toward a 5% emissions reduction over 1990 levels by 2005. It did so partly through an international cap-and-trade system, and also by establishing a Clean Development Mechanism that would enable big greenhouse-gas emitters to claim credit for reducing emissions which they secured by buying reductions elsewhere, in developing countries.

None of this has worked. Nevertheless, support for “Kyoto” has become the test by which individuals and nations demonstrate whether they are for or against the planet and its poor.

Kevin Rudd’s Australian government just showed this. It will ratify the Protocol to show that it is serious about climate change. But Australia, like other countries already signed up to Kyoto, will produce no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth as a result of doing so.

Where emissions reductions have happened, notably in eastern Europe, re-unified Germany and the United Kingdom, they were the result of unrelated policies — such as the collapse of communism, and with it the shutdown of highly inefficient and polluting industries, or Margaret Thatcher’s smashing of union power by destroying the British coal industry, which meant the substitution of coal by cleaner North Sea gas.

Strip out Germany and the U.K. from the EU-15, and European emissions actually increased 10% between 1990 and 2005. In five countries, emissions rates rose more than in the U.S. Without the collapse of Russia and Ukraine, the Kyoto Protocol’s “all signatory total” registers rises since 1990. Even in Japan, emission levels are rising. Kyoto’s supporters blame nonsignatory governments, especially the U.S. and, (until last week) Australia.

The above op-ed is a summary of the full paper by Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner article [PDF, University of Oxford and London School of Economics]. In brief, what is wrong with Kyoto, why it failed – losing 15 years, a slender window of opportunity to radically rethink our objectives and operations.

Following is the Executive Summary:

We face a problem of anthropogenic climate change, but the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 has failed to tackle it. A child of summits, it was doomed from the beginning, because of the way that it came into being, Kyoto has given only an illusion of action. It has become the sole focus of our efforts, and, as a result, we have wasted fifteen years.

We have called this essay “The Wrong Trousers” evoking the Oscar-winning animated film of that name. In that film, the hapless hero, Wallace, becomes trapped in a pair of automated ‘Techno Trousers’. Whereas he thought they would make his life easier, in fact, they take control and carry him off in directions he does not wish to go.

We evoke this image to suggest how the Kyoto Protocol has also marched us involuntarily to unintended and unwelcome places. Just as the enticingly electro-mechanical “Techno Trousers” offered the prospect of hugely increasing the wearer’s power and stride, so successful international treaties leverage the power of signatory states in a similar way, making possible together what cannot be achieved alone. The Kyoto Wrong Trousers have done something similar to those who fashioned and subscribed to the agreement. To set a new course, we need to understand how we have gone wrong so far. Accordingly, the essay proceeds in three sections, as follows:

I. Kyoto: From Treaty to Creed

Recognition is growing of the many and serious shortcomings of the Kyoto Protocol and these are explained in this section. Some are technical; but others come because Kyoto has become a surrogate for other fights, as well as a dogma. Before the next meeting in Bali, Indonesia, locks down the post-2012 phase of climate change policy, there is a slim window of opportunity to implement a more productive approach.

II. Why Did the Kyoto Protocol Fail?

The Kyoto Protocol was doomed from the beginning because it was modelled on plausible but inappropriate precedents. We explain the failure of the Kyoto Protocol and discover what we can learn from its history in order to better design future policy.

We can discard the usual reasons given for the failure of the Kyoto protocol: that there is no problem of climate change; that certain key states have not signed up; or that political will was lacking. As the IPCC shows, there is a problem. Certain states, notably the USA and Australia, may have refused to sign up, but Kyoto has failed even in Europe and Japan, both of which enthusiastically adopted it and have paid huge sums to meet targets via “carbon offset” credits. There is plenty of political will, but it is driving a defective political process.

The Kyoto Protocol failed because it is the wrong type of instrument (a universal intergovernmental treaty) relying too heavily on the wrong agents exercising the wrong sort of power to create, from the top down, a carbon market. It relies on establishing a global market by government fiat, which has never been done successfully for any commodity. Such fabricated markets invite sharp and corrupt practices–and these are now occurring on a large scale in the European Emissions Trading Scheme and through Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism scams such as HFC combustion. This accounts for two-thirds of all CDM payments to 2012. On false premises, it dodged increasing challenges that result from industrialisation in China and India, in particular the growing use of coal in both countries.

Kyoto was constructed by quick borrowing from past practice with other treaty regimes dealing with ozone, sulphur emissions and nuclear bombs which, while superficially plausible, are not applicable in the ways that the drafters assumed because these were “tame” problems (complicated, but with defined and achievable end-states), whereas climate change is “wicked” (comprising open, complex and imperfectly understood systems). Technical knowledge was taken as sufficient basis from which to derive Kyoto’s policy, whereas “wicked” problems demand profound understanding of their integration in social systems, and their ongoing development.

The presentation of Kyoto as the only course of action has raised the political price of admitting its defects, not least because it would mean admitting that the non-signatories may have been right in practice, whatever their motives. Its advocates invested emotional as well as political capital in the process, making it difficult to contemplate the idea that it is fatally flawed. Its narrow focus on mitigating the emission of greenhouse gases (in which it has failed) has created a taboo on discussing other approaches, in particular, adaptation to climate change. Failure to adapt will cost the poor and vulnerable the most.

For the past fifteen years, it has given the concerned public an illusion of effective action, tranquillising political concern. This has been, perhaps, its most damaging legacy.

III. The Right Trousers

The final section sets down the principles that should underpin a viable engagement with climate security. In it, we take a radically different approach from the top-down command and regulatory regime of output targets that is Kyoto. Our approach is both older and simpler. It sets out to harness enlightened self-interest to drive a process designed to generate a range of possible solutions, which can be compared and assessed, mixed and matched, changed and refined as we pursue the goal of climate security.

In this essay, the reader will not find a detailed critique of the Kyoto mechanisms. Nor will the reader find a proposal for a different single solution in place of Kyoto. We have refrained from this because climate change is not a discrete problem amenable to any single shot solution, be it Kyoto or any other. Climate change is the result of a particular development path and its globally interlaced supply system of fossil energy. No single intervention can change such a complex nexus (although as the earlier sections have shown, the attempt to do so has produced unintended and unwelcome effects). There is no simple silver bullet.

Instead, we suggest that in cases like this, the best line of attack is not head-on. We suggest that the policy response to climate change should assemble instead a portfolio of approaches—silver buckshot, rather than silver bullet—that would move us in the right direction, even though it is impossible to predict which of these approaches might stimulate the necessary fundamental change. This is a process of social learning in which we must be always alert to maintain our trajectory towards the goal by constant course corrections and improvements which, by definition, cannot be prescribed precisely beforehand.

In the third section we elaborate the following seven basic principles of such a radically re-thought approach: 1. Use silver buckshot; 2. Abandon universalism; 3. Devise trading schemes from the bottom up; 4. Deal with problems at the lowest possible levels of decision-making; 5. Invest in technology R&D; 6. Increase spending on adaptation; 7. Understand that successful climate policy does not necessarily focus instrumentally on the climate.

Throughout we emphasise the urgency of re-framing climate policy in this way because whereas today there is strong public support for climate action, continued policy failure on the Kyoto principles spun as a story of success could lead to public withdrawal of trust and consent for action, whatever form it takes.


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