To Kyoto or not to Kyoto

As I mentioned in previous posts, Australia recently elected a new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, ousting John Howard, who had been in power for over 11 years. John Howard had been an opponent of the Kyoto protocol from the very beginning. When Rudd was elected the first thing he did, in his very first week in office, was to ratify Kyoto. While I strongly support measures to limit greenhouse gas emissions, I have long been an opponent of the Kyoto protocol. I often receive a lot criticism for taking this stance, largely from people who fanatically support emission reduction, regard me as an eco-terrorist, but have little understanding of how Kyoto works. Given Australia’s recent ratification of the protocol, it seems like a fitting time for me to outline my motivation for opposing it. There are several objections I have to the protocol, which I will outline one by one.

First, the protocol requires reduction in greenhouse gas emission levels relative to 1990. At first glance this seems reasonable – we set some benchmark relative to which we must reduce emissions. However, 1990 is a special year, since it marks the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and East Germany were full of highly inefficient factories and power plants, which were shut down following the fall of the iron curtain. Thus, simply by shutting down economically unviable infrastructure, East Germany and the former Soviet republics significantly reduced their greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels. A consequence of this is that present day Germany could significantly increase it’s emissions and still meet its targets, whereas other comparable industrialized countries have to significantly reduce their emissions, even even if they produce less emissions per capita than Germany. The same applies to the former Soviet Republics.

The second objection I have is that the Kyoto protocol excludes ‘developing’ countries, which includes China and India. While such an exclusion may appear fair at first glance, there are two problems with it. First, China and India will shortly overtake the US as the world’s largest greenhouse emitters. If the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters are excluded from the protocol then the efforts of the lesser countries are futile and globally the protocol will have little impact on emission levels.

Another consequence of the exclusion of developing countries is that this will result in the shuffling around of industry, with little overall effect on emission levels. If industries with large greenhouse overheads are unable to operate in the developed countries, they will simply move to countries where they can emit to their heart’s content, i.e. the ‘developing’ countries, which are exempt.

Another objection I have to the protocol is the way in which greenhouse gas emissions are tallied. The protocol simply tallies the net emissions per country. This may seem fair, but in a globalized economy, where goods are readily traded between countries, it is futile to tally emissions per country. For example, consider Australia. Australia has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emission in the world. This is not because the people of Australia live lifestyles with more greenhouse overhead than other countries. It is, in part, because Australia has a huge mining sector, which is heavily polluting. However, it is not the Australian people who are consuming these good. Rather, they are largely for export. That is, these greenhouse gas emissions are being produced on behalf of people in other countries, yet it is Australia which is penalized for these emissions.

Finally, I’d like to rebut a common argument used in favor of the Kyoto protocol. Often people acknowledge the shortcomings of the protocol, but argue that ‘it is a good start, which can be fixed up later on’. I think this argument originates directly from la la land. Once a protocol like this has been ratified, which massively favors some countries over others, it is completely unrealistic to assume that the favored countries will allow subsequent modifications which eliminate the competitive advantage that the original implementation of the protocol bestowed upon them.

So, if I’m not in favor of the Kyoto protocol, what do I propose as a solution to our greenhouse gas problems. First, I think there should be no exclusions from a meaningful protocol. Second, I think that rather than mandating particular greenhouse targets, it would be better to mandate the adoption of certain technologies. For example, China is full of highly inefficient, polluting coal fired power plants. By mandating the adoption of certain technologies, China could continue producing power to its heart’s content, while significantly reducing its overall emissions. This would allow developing countries to expand, which is only fair, while simultaneously minimizing their emissions. A good example of an effective technological change was the elimination of CFC’s, which has been universally adopted. CFC’s are particularly damaging, and their elimination represents a substantial step forward. The important point here is that there were other technologies that could replace CFC’s, and mandating a transition to these other technologies was very effective and with little economic burden. By mandating the adoption of certain technologies, rather than emission reductions per se, we have a compromise where greenhouse emissions will be reduced without debilitating economic consequences.

Perhaps the most important realization we can make is that there is no slam-dunk solution to the world’s greenhouse problems. Being realists we need to acknowledge that we cannot ‘solve’ the problem. Rather, by taking certain measures and adopting certain technologies (e.g. more efficient coal powered plants, and alternate power sources) we can minimize the problem.

3 thoughts on “To Kyoto or not to Kyoto”

  1. Kyoto, from the very beginning, was meant to be a temporary agreement later to be replaced by something more up to date. At the time when it was signed, developing countries (CXhina, India, in particular) were well behind and it would have been totally unfair to impose the same restrictions on them as on highly developed countries. Concerning Germany in 1990, East Germany had a much smaller share of the total German economy than West Germany, and so I don’t know how significant the shutting down of much of its industries were.

  2. I think you’re missing the most important part of Kyoto: Emissions Trading. Certainly, as you point out, there will be winners and losers from the initial allocation of emission targets. But over time, emissions credits will become a global commodity. The initial allocations will be of historical interest only, once carbon emission has a true global cost on the market.

    The biggest problem, as you point out, is how to get China and India involved in a way that’s fair.

  3. Peter nice statement, I think I can agree on most of the comments made. Unfortunately, the world is neither full of realists nor physicists. And this is exactly why realistically, I think not much is going to happen at all, unfortunately. Dessler and Parson have actually discussed this very nicely: The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate, Andrew E. Dessler + Edward A. Parson, Cambridge University Press 2006. Worth a read. Germany has just assessed its clean coal storage capacities from CCS and found they have enough for only 60 years. So CCS does not look like it is going to be of much use at all …

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