The Kyoto approach

July 17, 2006
Amid all that remains to be learned about climate change, an important lesson is how to discuss the subject without using the word “Kyoto.”

Amid all that remains to be learned about climate change, an important lesson is how to discuss the subject without using the word “Kyoto.” By that measure of enlightenment, it is possible to report progress.

With performance data for another year newly in hand, the Kyoto Treaty’s foremost cheering section is turning glum. The European Union isn’t on track to lower its members’ collective emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 8% during 1990-2012. It isn’t coming close.

Emissions up

The European Environment Agency reported last month that between 2003 and 2004 GHG emissions by all 25 current EU members (EU25) increased by 0.4%. For the 15 countries that belonged to the EU before enlargement in 2004 (EU15), emissions rose 0.3%.

Europeans can find it only mildly comforting that in 2004 emissions of all GHGs by the EU15 fell 0.9% below base-year levels. But the trend since 1999 has been upward. And EU15 emissions of carbon dioxide, the GHG most associated with human activity, climbed in 2004 to 4.4% above their 1990 level. CO2 emissions, too, have risen in all but 1 year since 1999.

As Kyoto goals recede from European reach, a mechanism essential to their pursuit wobbles. The EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme has been subject to criticism since the value of CO2 allowances crashed in May on reports that many members had set high emission caps to protect their industries. The news provoked environmental groups. “European governments are guilty of allowing their industries to produce as much carbon dioxide as they wish at no cost,” charged WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund. So Kyoto’s ambitions are colliding with its costs.

Strong expressions of doubt about the program also have emerged in Canada, which ratified the Kyoto Treaty in 2002 under a Liberal government that lost power in a close election in January. The new Conservative government’s minister of the environment, Rona Ambrose, predicts her country can’t meet its Kyoto target of a 6% GHG reduction by 2012. In fact, since 1990, Canadian emissions have increased by 35%. In April, Ambrose said officials of her department and others believed “that it is impossible, impossible for Canada to reach its Kyoto targets,” according a report by CBC News. She added: “We are not the only country that is finding itself in this situation.”

Is it possible that Kyoto promoters overestimated climate manageability and therefore underestimated the costs of climate management? Don’t ask. Kyoto promoters don’t take questions.

And that, of course, is the problem. Kyoto is an aggressive and costly response to troubling trends in a poorly understood natural system, in which human activity is just one influence among many. Too many signatories didn’t ask whether they could meet the treaty’s GHG-reduction targets at tolerable cost. They accepted controls without wondering whether achievement of the targets might meaningfully affect global average temperature. Raising questions, after all, amounted to heresy. Now the costs are becoming clear, and the balance with prospective benefits isn’t appealing.

The failure casts suspicion on the rationale for aggressive climate-change precaution, which has been promoted with alarmism. Debate should be addressing a potential but immeasurable threat in the context of uncertain science and global economic imperatives. Instead, it asserts “settled science” and an impossible “consensus” about the need for remedy at any cost. The political debate thus begins with Kyoto, which supporters themselves call only a “starting point,” and shuns, as somehow wrong-headed, questions about the approach. Yet events are proving those questions valid.

Arbitrary goals

The starting point is in fact collapsing. Its goals are arbitrary and unrealistic. It represents governance for the sake of governance, the rush to which should raise questions in any issue.

And still the climate changes. Concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere increase. Measured surface temperatures rise. Indications are that human activity does account for some of the apparent warming. Preventive measures might indeed be in order. Until submission to hasty first responses ceases to be the price of admission into climate-change discussions, however, there will be no way to tell what sensible precaution might entail.