Kyoto Protocol is fatally flawed; replacement needed


The Kyoto Protocol is fatally flawed and show be replaced by a more effective framework, argue researchers writing in this week's issue of Nature.

Kyoto Protocol is fatally flawed; replacement needed

Kyoto Protocol is fatally flawed; replacement needed

October 25, 2007

The Kyoto Protocol is fatally flawed and show be replaced by a more effective framework, argue researchers writing in this week’s issue of Nature.

Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics and Steve Rayner of Oxford University say that while the need to address rising greenhouse gas emissions is of critical importance, the Kyoto Protocol was a hastily prepared effort that was destined to fail by failing to account for the complexity of the issue.

“Kyoto’s supporters often blame non-signatory governments, especially the United States and Australia, for its woes. But the Kyoto Protocol was always the wrong tool for the nature of the job. Kyoto was constructed by quickly borrowing from past treaty regimes dealing with stratospheric ozone depletion, acid rain from sulphur emissions and nuclear weapons,” they write. “Drawing on these plausible but partial analogies, Kyoto’s architects assumed that climate change would be best attacked directly through global emissions controls, treating tonnes of carbon dioxide like stockpiles of nuclear weapons to be reduced via mutually verifiable targets and timetables. Unfortunately, this borrowing simply failed to accommodate the complexity of the climate-change issue.”

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations (ppm), 1958-2004, derived from in situ air samples collected at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii.

“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.”

Prins and Rayner argue that not only has Kyoto failed to slow greenhouse gas emissions (global emissions have increased 35 percent since 1990 while no major industrial power — even among Kyoto signatories — has managed to cut its GHG output), but “it has stifled discussion of alternative policy approaches that could both combat climate change and adapt to its unavoidable consequences.”

Prins and Rayner recommend a “radical rethink” of climate policy based on five key elements: focusing mitigation efforts on big emitters; allow genuine emissions markets (i.e. using a carbon tax as a price signal or cap-and-trade) to evolve from the bottom up; putting public investment in energy R&D on a wartime footing (in the U.S. $80 per year is spent on military R&D); increasing spending on adaptation strategies; and working on solutions at appropriate scales (They suggest using the U.S. federal system as a model: “the US system of federalism that encourages small-scale policy experiments at the state or local-government levels as well as with the philanthropic and private sectors”)

“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,” they conclude.

CITATION: Gwyn Prins & Steve Rayner (2007). Time to ditch Kyoto. Nature 449, 973-975 (25 October 2007) | doi:10.1038/449973a; Published online 24 October 2007

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