A paper delivered to the Lavoisier Group Conference, Melbourne, 11 September 2001

The Failure of the Kyoto Process

Professor Aynsley Kellow

The Kyoto Process has failed.

It has failed to produce a credible international regime to respond to the risks of dangerous anthropogenic climate change.

The compromise agreed to in Bonn in July represents a commitment to a net reduction in the emission of a basket of greenhouse gases of around 2% over 1990 levels by the 2008-2012 commitment period. The United States has effectively exited the regime and the inclusion of generous provision for sinks in order to get Japan, Canada, Australia and the other Umbrella Group Parties to accept the Bonn agreement has reduced the 5.2% collective target for emission reduction set in Kyoto in December 1997.

Essentially, what had been rejected by the European Union in The Hague was accepted in Bonn, because at the end of the day any agreement was preferred by the EU to no agreement.

The result is a decision which, once adopted by the Meeting of the Kyoto Parties, once the Protocol enters in to effect---once, in other words, it is ratified by 55% of the Parties to the FCCC accounting for 55% of Annex I 1990 emissions---has disappointed most people.

It has disappointed Greens because it is not stringent enough, and it has disappointed opponents because it has kept Kyoto limping along on life support. It was previously 'undead' in the US under the Clinton Administration, and Bush drove a stake through its heart, but it lingers on, again 'undead' and dependent upon Japan's ratification.

It disappoints the Russians and the Ukraine, because they have emission rights to sell, but the process has led to the withdrawal from the market of the biggest potential buyer (prices are at about 10c/ton on the Chicago Market).

And it has disappointed developing countries, because at that price it is no longer attractive to earn credits by investing in 'clean development' within their borders, so there is less likelihood of substantial flows of wealth to them.

But perhaps the most important way in which the Kyoto Process has failed is that it has failed to lay the foundations for a regime which would allow the Parties to evolve long-term responses if and when needed. The most important factor here is the damage done to the evolution of the shared norms within a regime which the theorists tell us is central to any successful regime. More on the cause of this later.

This aspect of a climate change regime was always more important than the content of the Protocol itself, or at least any commitments to particular reduction targets. Estimates of the effect of the original 5.2% cut in Annex I emissions were that they would, if the science is accepted, shave about 0.2 degrees off a 'most likely' warming of about 2 degrees over the next 100 years if CO2 levels doubled---or slow the reaching of that target by five or six years. And it would have made little or no difference for the best part of a century. For that result, 1-3% per annum would have been shaved off the GDP of Annex I Parties (perhaps $250-500 per capita per annum).

Many have rightly questioned whether this represented a good insurance policy. More important was the establishment of a regime capable of responding in the long term, and that prospect, I would argue, has been diminished rather than enhanced by some features of the Kyoto Process.

So what do I mean by 'the Kyoto Process?'

The climate change convention and subsequent Protocol concluded at Kyoto are perhaps the first---and are certainly the most notable---instruments which have been developed with the benefit of the experience gained with negotiating instruments such as the Montreal Protocol.

Everyone from Al Gore to Mustafa Tolba, then Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, stated that Montreal would be the model for a climate change convention. In Tolba's case, he said it in 1987, before most of us thought there was a problem to respond to.

The model has been 'codified' by Brenton, in his book The Greening of Machiavelli, and contains four features:

  1. The use of toe-in-the door negotiating techniques, which involve little substantive content but are open-ended and allow for the development of more meaningful commitments subsequently (ie the Framework Convention on Climate Change).
  2. Reliance upon a scientific consensus to produce agreement (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
  3. Reliance upon strong normative injunctions to 'save the planet' which negotiators find difficult to resist (German newspapers calling George W. Bush a 'climate killer'; the Scottish leader of the Liberal Democrats calling him a mass murderer; talk of a 'holocaust' from the Nauru Premier).
  4. The activities of non-governmental actors in putting pressure on reluctant Parties---often in fact combining points 2 and 3 in an ecocentric moral discourse, such as Greenpeace's sworn allegiance to 'The Laws of Nature' which it places above the laws of man. This activity is important because the UN is prevented by the Charter from engaging in the domestic politics of its members, but NGOs can exert pressure on governments in favour of UN proposals.

The above elements were all there with Kyoto, and there by deliberate design. But they failed to deliver the goods. Why?

The most obvious answer is that interests were much stronger and more important with climate change than with ozone. The costs were also distributed asymmetrically between the principal Parties.

EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom stated that the economic costs of Kyoto for the EU were only 0.06% of GDP. Even discounting for enthusiasm, this was two orders of magnitude below the estimates for the Umbrella Group. This stemmed from the different mixes of energy competitiveness of the Parties, as well as factors such as the selection of 1990 as the base year for emission reductions, which advantaged Germany and the United Kingdom so enormously---and thus (thanks to the Burden Sharing Agreement, or European Bubble) the EU.

But the science was also weaker than many suppose, and employed by science politicians and others in a clearly political manner with the clear expectation that they could produce a kind of scientific iron cage which would force the Parties to overcome their substantial differences in interests.

It is fair to say that the construction of the problem attempted was:

  • one which involved greater negative consequences and a neglect of benefits;
  • one which emphasised CO2 and thus energy competitiveness over other GHGs (and, as James Hansen showed, there are good technical and economic reasons for considering the others);
  • one which emphasised emissions rather than sinks;
  • one which downplayed uncertainty.

I do not wish to delve into the science at any great length, other than to state that the conclusions drawn by my colleague Garth Paltridge seem eminently sensible: that we probably face a modest warming over the next century; that some of this might be above that which might otherwise occur, thanks to human agency; that some of this will have negative consequences and some beneficial; and that what matters most is the effect of this (largely unavoidable) climate change on the distribution of extreme events and how we adapt to them.

I cannot, however, resist tilting at a couple of aspects of the science (at least as it is employed politically) which strike me as a bit worrying.

First is IPCC Chair Bob Watson's prediction in spruiking the IPCC Third Assessment Report that 'tropical diseases such as malaria' will spread to temperate regions. Malaria is simply not a tropical disease. It was formerly endemic up to the Arctic Circle, was known historically in England as 'the ague' and was controlled by draining wetlands, improving housing and (ultimately) spraying with DDT. Europe was not declared malaria-free by the WHO until 1975.

Second, is the bringing in of the satellite observations in the TAR Summary for Policymakers, now that they show a slight warming trend over the 30-odd years of observations of 0.05 degrees plus or minus 0.1 degrees, without stating that this data is consistent with a zero trend.

The third is the 'Hockey Stick' paper which, by putting two totally different sets of data together, has redefined the history of the climate of the last millennium, suggesting that Medieval Climate Optimum was probably just a couple of Indian Summers and the Little Ice Age was confined to a few Breugel paintings. It is not the paper itself which is worrying---good science will always drive out bad eventually, and that will be the fate of this paper if it deserves it. What is worrying is the speed with which these conclusions were so enthusiastically endorsed by the IPCC leadership, because they allowed the statement to be made that the last century was the warmest in the last millennium.

Combine that with the research of Christy et al. showing a poor correspondence between air temperatures and the temperature of the underlying ocean which has been taken as a proxy for surface temperatures over two-thirds of the Earth's surface in all the modelling thus far, and you begin to see why the science was not sufficiently clear to lead governments to sacrifice a couple of percent of GDP for Kyoto. This is especially so when we consider Garth Paltridge's point that the climate system is chaotic and inherently unpredictable.

The science has its problems, but the way it has been used is more worrying. The science has to a degree been corrupted by the demands for 'relevance' and the emergence of a 'grant-dense' environment within which it is now conducted. The individual scientists are simply grappling with enormous problems within this context. But their findings have been abused by political actors on numerous occasions. For example, the figure of a 5.8 degree warming has been commonly discussed, despite the point that this is highly improbable. (An MIT analysis puts the probability at less than 1%).

What is disappointing is that the IPCC spokesmen have failed to correct those abuses which reinforce politically the scientific consensus while attempting to marginalise dissenters. Science is in a poor state when the term 'sceptic' is intended as a term of abuse.

The normative discourses employed by the NGOs have also, not surprisingly, failed to overcome the interests involved.

Rather they have simply poisoned the atmosphere within which negotiations have occurred, ironically making less likely the evolution of shared norms vital to the development of effective regimes, while encouraging the EU to believe that it was on the side of the angels for long enough that the US exited and it was forced to accept in Bonn what it had largely rejected in The Hague. The European Commission, however, has gained energy competence (or jurisdiction) and a strong rationale has been provided for unpopular energy taxes.

Green NGOs were ultimately unable to deliver for the EU, despite turning a blind eye to the political emissions trading of the European Bubble, while condemning the proposed market for hot air trading proposed within the Umbrella Group. Aside from the strength of interests to be countered, the NGOs were too close to the EU to be considered any longer as disinterested and principled actors.

The NGOs were not just tactically close to the EU, the principal NGOs reflect European interests. While Greenpeace is very much a Northern European actor, supporting the positions internationally of those such as Germany it has helped form domestically, others are even closer to the EU. Climate Network Europe (the European branch of the Climate Action Network), WWF and Friends of the Earth all receive funding from the European Commission in the range of hundreds of thousands of Euros, and are increasingly regarded as lacking independence.

They have in the Kyoto Process acted as Baptists to assist various bootlegger interests, to use Bruce Yandle's analogy. Many of these advantaged interests are those they abhor---like the nuclear industry, which has not enjoyed such favourable conditions since Chernobyl.

It seems to me that it would have been preferable to have aimed for a more modest Protocol which did not seek to impose European advantage on the Umbrella Group, but which put in place the basis upon which a more effective regime could evolve, with commitments strengthened slowly as required. Shared norms are more likely to result from such a process than from one where NGOs and science politicians seek to impose them on Parties to the advantage of some other Parties.

Several lessons are there to be drawn from Kyoto. One is that there are inherent dangers in employing the precautionary principle in such a regulatory regime, since it encourages regulatory ambition when there is still so much uncertainty in the factors upon which a regulatory regime must depend. This makes agreement on such complex issues unlikely.

But perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the Kyoto Process is that interests have to be respected more if we wish to develop detailed, workable international instruments. Where interests are important, attempts to impose normative and scientific imperatives appear unlikely to succeed.

Lavoisier the Man
Bio and Image
Click above for latest SOHO sunspot images.
Click here for David Archibald on solar cycles.
Where is that pesky greenhouse signature?
Click here for David Evans's article.

Website designed and powered by Fergco Pty Ltd.
Copyright in the materials on this site resides with The Lavoisier Group Inc.