Climate Change after Kyoto: A Blueprint for a Realistic Approach

By McKibbin, Warwick J.; Wilcoxen, Peter J. | Brookings Review, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Climate Change after Kyoto: A Blueprint for a Realistic Approach


McKibbin, Warwick J., Wilcoxen, Peter J., Brookings Review


In 1992, the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro produced a landmark treaty on climate change that undertook to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The agreement, signed and ratified by more than 186 countries, including the United States, spawned a decade of subsequent climate negotiations, but has had virtually no effect on greenhouse gas emissions, it has not even produced a detectable slowing in the rate of emissions growth.

The treaty's implementing protocol, the 1997 Kyoto agreement, has not been ratified by any major emitter of heat-trapping gases, has been rejected by the United States, and has been spurned by developing countries. At the same time, the relatively stringent emissions targets negotiated in Kyoto haw been so diluted in subsequent negotiations that it would likely take another decade for the protocol to begin to deal with the problem of climate change.

The primary cause of this failure has been the inability of the treaty negotiators to cope with the uncertainty that surrounds every facet of climate change--how much global warming will take place and when, how much damage it will cause, how costly addressing the damage will be.

The prevailing uncertainty about global warming is no argument for doing nothing about it. Clearly human activity is raising global concentrations of carbon dioxide. Virtually no one seriously suggests that mankind can continue to emit increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere without any adverse consequences. But arguing that climate change is such an overwhelming problem that it must be stopped no matter what the cost is also untenable. A climate policy that fails to take cost into consideration will ultimately be rejected by almost all governments.

In what follows we outline an approach to climate change that differs fundamentally from that of the Kyoto Protocol yet is consistent with the 1992 UN treaty. It can be developed from current negotiations and can even be implemented by individual countries before a final international agreement is reached.

What's Wrong with Kyoto

The fundamental principle on which the Kyoto Protocol is based--setting "targets and timetables" for reducing greenhouse gas emissions--is both economically flawed and politically unrealistic. To ratify the protocol, a developed country must be willing to agree to reduce its emissions to a specified level--typically about 5 percent below the country's emissions in 1990--by 2008 to 2012 regardless of cost. Because costs could be huge, most developed countries will never ratify the treaty or will insist, as a precondition, that their targets be diluted through an accounting adjustment that allows credit for activities that absorb carbon (called sinks). Countries that do ratify are unlikely to comply if the constraints become seriously binding. Developing nations, which will become the world's largest emitters in coming decades, have even less incentive to sign on.

The issue of costs is crucial. The array of uncertainties associated with climate change makes it impossible to tell whether the benefits of the treaty are worth its costs. Nor is there any evidence that the targets set by the protocol are the optimal levels of greenhouse gas emissions, either for an individual country or for the world as a whole. If anything, cost-benefit calculations based on studies to date tend to suggest that the costs exceed the benefits, at least in developed countries.

Kyoto's greatest Weakness, however, is not the lack of clear cost-benefit justification. After all, governments often face uncertainty when evaluating potential policies. Because the damages caused by climate change could be very large, a prudent legislature might want to adopt a climate policy to hedge its bets as long as it could keep the policy's costs within bounds. But Kyoto's "targets and timetables" design makes that impossible. …

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