Economist says the failure of Kyoto will lead to public distrust and a backlash in the support for environment

by Lene Johansen on December 27, 2007

in Blog

Economist Gwyn Prins from London School of Economics got his turn at Nature Podcast's Podium on October 25. He is outlining an agenda for the Bali conference that makes sense to those of us who has a vested interest in results, rather than a vested interest in status quo. The speech is based on a paper he and a colleague published in Nature that same week, but alas, the politicians at Bali don't read Nature, that means they have to sit down and understand science and stuff, which is too much to ask a meager politician about…

In December, the world's politicians, the climate policy community, activists, NGOs, and an army of attended media will converge on the Indonesian Island of Bali for the most important summit on climate change since Al Gore rescued the Kyoto protocol ten years ago. The Bali conference will decide the international climate policy for the years after 2012 when the protocol expires. The Bali agenda shows that unless something happens to stop it the plan is for a bigger and better Kyoto with more stringent targets, more ambitious timetables, more carbon trading, more countries inside the UN process. If that agenda is successfully achieved at Bali then ironically humanity will lose an important opportunity to start to make an impact on anthropogenic aspects of global climate change. Why? Because Kyoto has failed; it is time to ditch Kyoto, cut our losses, and to radically rethink climate policy. In this week's Nature, Steve Rayner and I outline the story of Kyoto's failure and also state a handful of key principles to underpin a radical and practical rethink. These should frame the Bali agenda. What failure? Kyoto's supporters may ask. Since coming into effect, Kyoto has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emission's growth and it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change, but the present moment is more precarious still. For Kyoto's continued policy failure is being spun by signatory governments, especially in Europe as a story of success. The danger is that while today there is strong public support for climate action, when the truth about the failure of Kyoto's admitted as circumstances will oblige, we may experience public withdrawal of trust and consent for action whatever form it takes. Kyoto's supporters often blame non signatory governments, especially the United States and Australia for its vows, 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, acid rain from sulphur emissions, and nuclear bombs. Drawing on those plausible, but partial analogies Kyoto's architects assumed that climate change would be best attacked directly through global emissions controls, treating tons of carbon dioxide like stockpiles of nuclear weapons to be reduced via targets and timetables. Kyoto relied on firing a silver bullet. The top down creation of a global carbon market, but there is little sign of any stable global carbon price emerging for the next decade or so and certainly not with a price signal strong enough to drive innovation. In the final analysis, carbon's trade cannot deliver the escape velocity required to get investment in technological innovation into orbit in time. That calls as we do for putting investment in decarbonised energy technologies on a wartime footing. Otherwise, they will not be available in time to disrupt the impending cycle of new investment in carbon intensive infrastructure and present cause, we are all about to be hit by a tidal wave of coal, especially in China, but a new Apollo or Manhattan project is only one of the necessary principles. No single shot can work on a complex open system issue like this. What we need is not a silver bullet, but silver buckshot. What Bali needs is a portfolio of approaches to move us in the right direction of which decarbonising the energy cycle is only one.

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