Bonn Voyage: Kyoto's Uncertain Revival

Bonn Voyage: Kyoto's Uncertain Revival

Mini Teaser: While the Bonn Conference revived an ailing global warming agreement, Kyoto's flaws render it a questionable approach to the longest of long-term politics.

by Author(s): Daniel Bodansky

Reports of Kyoto's death seem to have been exaggerated. Just when
most observers were writing Kyoto's obituary, the international
community reached a breakthrough in Bonn, resolving many of the key
political issues and thereby breathing new life into the Kyoto
process. But although Kyoto has shown surprising resilience, it is
hardly a done deal. Much work remains before it enters into force,
let alone before it can be considered a success. Moreover, despite
the events in Bonn, the United States does not appear likely to join
Kyoto anytime soon. This means that even if Kyoto does go forward, it
will apply to only about a quarter of the world's emissions of
greenhouse gases, with no near-term prospect for expanding its
coverage.

Thus, amid justifiable celebration of the Bonn agreement, a critical
assessment is in order. While Kyoto is an impressive achievement,
bearing little resemblance to the bogeyman of conservative lore, the
very features that make Kyoto so remarkable--its novelty, complexity
and ambition--may also undermine its long-term workability. Even many
of us working over the past few years to bring it into effect were
painfully aware of its weaknesses. Generally, our response was to
suspend disbelief and soldier on. To us, the negotiations had the
same quality that Woody Allen once ascribed to relationships: like a
shark, they had to move forward or they would die. Kyoto may have
problems, we acknowledged, but it's the only game in town. Better to
push it over the finish line and hope it works than to start all over
again, with no guarantee of doing better.

The silver lining in President Bush's repudiation of Kyoto is that
it has created the possibility of a new, more open-ended dialogue
about climate change policy. For the past five years, Kyoto has
sucked most of the oxygen out of this debate. Even in the wake of the
U.S. decision, it has continued to cast a long shadow, with
supporters proposing modest fixes and opponents (including the
President) concentrating on Kyoto's sins without--so far,
anyway--proposing any constructive alternative.

In going forward, the first step is to move beyond the ritualistic
justifications and denunciations of Kyoto in order to take stock of
the deeper lessons it teaches. Fundamentally, Kyoto treats a
long-term problem as though it were a short-term crisis. Just as
importantly, its architecture reflects a rationalist paradigm that
tends to ignore the messy institutional and political realities of
international life. Kyoto attempts to create a complex, global system
from scratch rather than proceeding experientially, building from the
bottom up. In considering what to do next, we are well advised to
remember that most successful international regimes such as the GATT
have developed differently, starting small or simply (or both) and
adding parties and complexity in a step-by-step manner.

A Retrospective on the Climate Change Negotiations

Whatever its weaknesses, that Kyoto was adopted at all was a
remarkable accomplishment. Climate change is perhaps the most
intractable issue facing the international community. Most scientists
believe the problem is serious, but many uncertainties remain,
allowing skeptics to argue for delay until more is known. Most of its
adverse effects will not be apparent for many decades, well beyond
the planning horizons of most governments or individuals. It requires
an unprecedented level of international cooperation, since emissions
everywhere contribute to the problem. And it is ubiquitous. Virtually
every human activity--manufacturing, transportation,
agriculture--emits greenhouse gases. Climate change thus presents
policymakers with the worst imaginable combination of features: it
requires them to begin taking actions now, affecting most aspects of
daily life, to combat a distant and uncertain threat.

When climate change first emerged as a political issue in the late
1980s, the initial international response focused on the science. In
1988, with the active support of the United States, the United
Nations established the IntergovernmentalPanel on Climate Change to
provide periodic scientific assessments (the most recent one appeared
earlier this year). Very quickly, however, the European Union and
small island states (who fear being inundated by rising seas) began
to call for mandatory reductions of carbon dioxide and other
greenhouse gases. The debate ever since has focused on whether to
establish national emissions targets and, if so, at what level of
stringency and with what mechanisms of implementation.

In the initial round of negotiations prior to the 1992 Earth Summit
in Rio de Janeiro, the first Bush Administration successfully fended
off European efforts to establish legally-binding emission targets.
Instead, the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change contains
only a non-binding political aim, together with a long-term objective
(stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations at non-dangerous
levels) and various principles to guide the evolution of the regime
(e.g., equity between industrialized and developing countries,
cost-effectiveness and precaution).

The ink had barely dried on the Framework Convention, however, when
many countries began to argue that the Convention's "commitments"
were inadequate. The new Clinton Administration agreed and in 1995
accepted the Berlin Mandate, which called for the negotiation of
additional commitments for industrialized countries. Two years later,
the negotiations concluded with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol.

As one of the most innovative and ambitious international agreements
ever negotiated, Kyoto has inspired hyperbole by proponents and
opponents alike. The real story is, as usual, more complex.

Kyoto sets forth both a long-term architecture and short-term
commitments. At the core of the long-term architecture are
legally-binding national commitments to reduce total greenhouse gas
emissions, which apply to multiple-year "commitment periods" and
govern emissions of six greenhouse gases, among them carbon dioxide.
In achieving these commitments, Kyoto allows countries considerable
flexibility. It prescribes a result, but lets countries determine how
to achieve that result, including through the use of market-based
mechanisms such as emissions trading or through forestry and
agricultural activities that remove carbon from the atmosphere
(so-called carbon "sinks").

Generally, critics focus not on Kyoto's long-term architecture but on
its short-term emission targets for the five-year period running from
2008 to 2012. These targets, however, were intended to be the first
word on combating climate change, not the last. Of course they were
politically rather than scientifically based and did not include
developing countries. But no emissions target could have had a
scientific basis since scientists do not (and probably cannot) agree
on what levels of greenhouse gases are "safe." The Kyoto targets at
least head the world in what most scientists agree is the right
direction, toward lower emissions, and could eventually include
developing countries. In the long term, developing country targets
will be essential for stabilizing emissions. Kyoto does not preclude
such targets; it merely reflects the view that industrialized
countries should take the lead in reducing emissions, both because
they created the problem in the first place (through their historical
emissions) and have the greatest capacity to respond.

Essay Types: Essay