Is Kyoto Dead?

Yvo de Boer, former secretary general of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), said in an interview with the German “tageszeitung”:

The spirit of the Kyoto Protocol vanished. The body is still being artificially held alive and maybe some organs can be transplanted. But we must recognize that the Kyoto Protocol is dead.

His proposal is to give up the idea of a “post-Kyoto” and try new ideas instead – for example the establishment of a world climate organization similar to the WTO – one that would formulate standards for economic actors and give the markets more weight in combating climate change.

After Copenhagen and Cancún one may really ask whether it makes sense to stick to the idea of a post-Kyoto protocol. Some hope that the next IPCC assessment report (to be published in 2014) will give the whole thing a new impetus. But so were the hopes in the prefield of Copenhagen. 2007, when the Fourth Assessment Report were published, the Conference of Parties of the UNFCCC in Bali, Indonesia was able to agree on the so called Bali road map. It relatively clearly outlined the next steps to agreeing on a new global climate protection framework in 2009. Now we have 2011 and there is still no real progress. Although Cancún was celebrated by the negotiators as a success, it in reality wasn’t – unless you call everything better than a disaster (Copenhagen) a success.

On the other hand, it was frequently emphasized by economists and others that without a global framework the chance of success in tackling climate change is vanishingly small (see, e.g., here). Of course, if we cannot achieve this (and it may well be that we cannot – look at the parochial position of the US, especially taken together with the unclear strategy of the other important big player China), we have to think about alternatives. The problem is that we don’t really know what will be in the future – the probability of reaching a global agreement (especially of an agreement between the industrialized and the developing countries) may be low, but still there is some. The risks due to fully giving up the post-Kyoto process are large.

Another problem is the quality of alternative proposals. Take the one by de Boer: indeed, a “WCO” may be a good idea to support other measures (e.g., a global framework with binding commitments – see above). It certainly could improve the efficiency of other measures. But climate change is a typical commons problem – and as such to a large extent “immune” to pure market measures. Market approaches may be efficient, but they are not effective at a global scale – if they did, the challenge wouldn’t be as great as it is.

Summing up: although there still is some hope, I am afraid that de Boer is right, that Kyoto is really “dead”. The problem is that we have no real alternatives. Without some “checks and balances” between nations there always will be an incentive for free riding (i.e., escaping one’s own responsibilities and benefiting from others’ actions). We see it now: as de Boer himself says, the Europeans do “something” (i.e., they try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), but this by far is not enough as long as China, India, Brazil and the US don’t do anything (or do only slightly more than nothing). So, if Kyoto really is dead – then we have a big problem.


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