Soon the international climate policy will meet under the UN’s framework convention on climate change in Bali where representative’s of the world’s nations will attempt to forge an effective international strategy to succeed the Kyoto protocol when it expires in 2012. There has been a lot of thinking in recent years on what form this agreement should take, and strong statements from the world’s scientific community that the world requires immediate reductions in CO2 emissions. The head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, said “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments’ concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change. The impending United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Bali in December — to decide international policy after 2012 — needs to radically rethink climate policy.
Influenced by three major policy initiatives of the 1980s, the Kyoto strategy is elegant but misguided. Ozone depletion, acid rain and nuclear arms control are difficult problems, but compared to climate change they are relatively simple. Ozone depletion could be prevented by controlling a small suite of artificial gases, for which technical substitutes could be found. Acid rain was mainly caused by a single activity in a single industrial sector (power generation) and nuclear arms reductions were achieved by governments agreeing to a timetable for mutually verifiable reductions in warheads. None of this applies to global warming.
In practice, Kyoto depends on the top-down creation of a global market in carbon dioxide by allowing countries to buy and sell their agreed allowances of emissions. But there is little sign of a stable global carbon price emerging in the next 5–10 years. Even if such a price were to be established, it is likely to be modest — sufficient only to stimulate efficiency gains. Without a significant increase in publicly funded research and development (R&D) for clean energy technology and changes to innovation policies, there will be considerable delay before innovation catches up with this modest price signal.
Sometimes the best line of attack is not head-on. Indirect measures can deliver much more: these range from informational instruments, such as labelling of consumer products; market instruments, such as emissions trading; and market stimuli, such as procurement programmes for clean technologies; to a few command-and-control mechanisms, such as technology standards. The benefit of this approach is that it focuses on what governments, firms and households actually do to reduce their emissions, in contrast to the directive target setting that has characterized international discussions since the late 1980s.
Because no one can know beforehand the exact consequences of any portfolio of policy measures, with a bottom-up approach, governments would focus on navigation, on maintaining course and momentum towards the goal of fundamental technological change, rather than on compliance with precise targets for emissions reductions. The flexibility of this inelegant approach would allow early mitigation efforts to serve as policy experiments from which lessons could be learned about what works, when and where. Thus cooperation, competition and control could all be brought to bear on the problem.
Does the Kyoto bandwagon have too much political momentum? We hope not. It will take courage for a policy community that has invested much in boosting Kyoto to radically rethink climate policy and adopt a bottom-up ‘social learning’ approach. But finding a face-saving way to do so is imperative. Not least, this is because today there is strong public support for climate action; but continued policy failure ‘spun’ as a story of success could lead to public withdrawal of trust and consent for action, whatever form it takes.
Nature has a follow-up discussion on this commentary on their climate blog ClimateFeedback.
A recent issue of Nature (15 November 2007) includes a letter from German climate scientist and policy advisor John Schellnhuber in which he responds. In Kyoto: no time to rearrange deckchairs on the Titaniche writes:
Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner … manage to be perfectly right and utterly wrong at the same time. Their criticism of the bureaucratic Kyoto Protocol is justified on many crucial points (although they don’t mention that the physical impact of the protocol on the climate system would be negligible even if it worked). The novelty of this summary of well-known deficiencies in the treaty is that the list comes from independent European scientists rather than White House mandarins. Is there anything substantially new beyond that provocation?
Yes, in the sense that Prins and Rayner boldly propagate a “bottom-up ‘social learning’ ” approach to climate policy that aspires to “put public investment in energy R&D on a wartime footing”. I agree with the importance of both elements to twenty-first century climate protection, but doubt whether there is a solid causal chain linking them. Fine-scale measures and movements towards sustainability, as well as technological and institutional innovation strategies, are needed to decarbonize our industrial metabolism and to force policy-makers to face the challenges ahead. …
Time is crucial, however. It is unlikely that a bottom-up, multi-option approach alone will be able to mobilize war-level climate-protection efforts by all the major emitters (including Russia, China and India) within the one or two decades left to avert an unmanageable planetary crisis. Without a ‘global deal’ — designed for effectiveness, efficiency and fairness and providing a framework to accommodate every nation — there will be neither sufficient pressure nor appropriate orientation towards the climate solutions we desperately need. The bottom-up and top-down approaches are complementary and must be pursued interactively.
Kyoto is simply a miserable precursor of the global regime intended to deliver genuine climate stablization — and was never expected to be more. “Ditching” it now would render all the agonies involved completely meaningless after the event, denying the entire process of policy evolution the slightest chance to succeed. So, instead of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic through social learning, let us ditch pusillanimity.