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FOCUS: Imagining a Post-Kyoto Climate Regime

By Adil Najam

Thanks to backroom deal-making between the European Union and the Russian Federation—and despite persistent U.S. intransigence—the Kyoto Protocol on Global Climate Change finally came into force this February. Many believe that the resuscitation of the Kyoto deal is a momentous as well as joyful turning point in global climate policy.

It may well turn out to be so, but I am not prepared to celebrate just yet.

Negotiated in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol had sought to halt the growth of carbon emissions in the industrialized nations. The Protocol’s original goal was to reduce, by the year 2010, the total emissions of these industrialized countries by a total of around 5 percent below their 1990 emissions. Any reduction in global emissions is, of course, commendable. However, it was always clear that even if implemented fully, the Kyoto targets would make the most minor of dents in this most major of problems. With the world’s largest carbon emitter, the United States, still steadfast in its opposition to Kyoto it is now evident that even the very meager targets set at Kyoto will not be met. In essence, history is likely to remember the Kyoto Protocol as a failure of both imagination and ambition.

The coming into force of Kyoto is, however, not entirely without significance. The public failure of the treaty would have stymied future global policy initiatives and deeply disheartened those who seek more profound global action to combat climatic change. Importantly, the Protocol does make an important political statement by insisting that no one country, no matter how powerful, should be allowed to veto the global public interest.

The net result of the Kyoto process to date has been that U.S. stubbornness has cost the world seven precious years during which the energies of the climate community were diverted towards saving an agreement that had assumed a perverse political salience but was never climatically meaningful. Now that the political battle is over, we need to ensure that the protracted politicking of the last seven years does not permanently scar the future direction of global climate policy. In particular, there are three important ways in which future climate policy initiatives will have to move away from the shadow of the Kyoto architecture. All three have special relevance to developing countries.

First, the U.S. has very successfully evangelized the argument that the Kyoto Protocol is somehow inequitable because major developing countries were not required to make emission reductions. The argument was originally advanced by the U.S. government as a diversionary justification for its own policy reticence. However, it is now routinely propagated by U.S. nongovernmental organizations as well as U.S. academia. The attacks have particularly focused on China and India. Both countries are easy targets because they have over a billion people each, and just about anything when multiplied by a billion becomes a very large number. The fact of the matter is that the average American still emits nearly 10 times as much carbon as the average Chinese and over 20 times as much as the average Indian. It is both unfair and absurd to demand that we in the U.S. cannot restrict our emissions until the Chinese and Indians take on “equitable” responsibilities. In fairness, not everyone making this argument is seeking similar restrictions on the Chinese and Indians that are being asked of Americans. However, they are contributing to a very clear shift of focus away from the excessive emissions in the industrialized world and towards the marginal emissions of those in the developing countries. No amount of action by the Chinas, Indias, and all the developing countries put together can even begin to make a serious dent in global carbon concentrations unless meaningful action is first taken to curb the excessive emissions of those of us living in the industrialized world.

Second, there is a real need to involve the developing countries in the effort to curb global emissions. The way Kyoto sought to do this was through variants of emission trading schemes where investors from the industrialized countries could capitalize on the cheaper emission reductions in developing countries. The jury is still out on whether this so-called “clean development mechanism” (CDM) will be successful. There are many potential reasons why this experiment might fail. But even if it does not, picking low-hanging fruits cannot be a long-term solution. Ultimately, developing countries will wish to use the cheaper emission reductions for themselves. Moreover, we cannot indefinitely postpone difficult decisions in industrialized countries by seeking cheaper band-aids in the developing world. Market mechanisms can certainly be a path to a solution to the climate problem, but only if they lead to real technological innovation rather than emission shell games. The most lasting contributions from the developing countries will come not from their ability to cut emissions on the cheap, but from their ability to benefit from technological leapfrogging in long-term infrastructure.

Finally, the Kyoto formula of asking countries to reduce their emissions by a percentage of current emissions will simply not work for developing countries. (It is not reasonable to ask someone who is emitting at nearly zero to reduce his emission to absolutely zero!). If the atmosphere is a global common, we will have to shift towards some form of per capita allocation of emission rights. Why should someone living in Boston be granted the right to consume more of the global atmosphere than someone living in Bahawalpur? Others have already suggested a system where each individual is allotted an equal “emission space” (to be managed by countries and allocated on a past population level, say 1990 levels). Countries using more than their allocated emissions would have to rent “emission space” from those using less than their allocated emissions. Arguably, this could lead to a self-correcting market where the over-emitters as well as under-emitters would have an equal incentive to maintain low emissions. This, of course, is a notional schema. The real point is that the key question of how to allocate emission rights in an unequal world was left unanswered by Kyoto, but it cannot remain unanswered forever.

Adil Najam is associate professor of international negotiation and diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is a Convening Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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