There’s an interesting commenary in Nature this week (currently free to access) by Steve Rayner of the James Martin Institute in Oxford and Gwyn Prins of the LSE, arguing that while emissions abatement is a global priority, the Kyoto Protocol is the wrong tool for the job — a one-size-fits-all approach that, among other failings, doesn’t actually look likely to deliver the reductions that it has promised. Unfortunately, as they argue, this sub-optimal approach has developed an iconic status of its own, so that in many minds to be against Kyoto is tantamount to being against any form of action on climate. They’re worried that this means people will uncritically attempt to follow up the Kyoto protocol (which expires in 2012) with a son-of-Kyoto that contains many or all of the same flaws, when they should be having a much more radical rethink.
In their words:
The Kyoto Protocol is a symbolically important expression of governments’ concern about climate change. But as an instrument for achieving emissions reductions, it has failed. It has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions or even in anticipated emissions growth. And it pays no more than token attention to the needs of societies to adapt to existing climate change. The impending United Nations Climate Change Conference being held in Bali in December — to decide international policy after 2012 — needs to radically rethink climate policy…Already, in the post-Kyoto discussions, we are witnessing that well-documented human response to failure, especially where political or emotional capital is involved, which is to insist on more of what is not working: in this case more stringent targets and timetables, involving more countries. The next round of negotiations needs to open up new approaches, not to close them down as Kyoto did.
They go on to talk about some of the things they are in favour of: concentrating on the economies that are big emitters rather than treating all nations as equal partners in negotiation, a massive “wartime footing” increase in R&D, “bottom-up” emissions markets, increased spending on adaptation, and a multi-scale “madisonian” approach to the problem like that advocated by David Victor, which I guess encompasses a bunch of their previous points. Their conclusion:
Sometimes the best line of attack is not head-on. Indirect measures can deliver much more: these range from informational instruments, such as labelling of consumer products; market instruments, such as emissions trading; and market stimuli, such as procurement programmes for clean technologies; to a few command-and-control mechanisms, such as technology standards. The benefit of this approach is that it focuses on what governments, firms and households actually do to reduce their emissions, in contrast to the directive target setting that has characterized international discussions since the late 1980s.
Because no one can know beforehand the exact consequences of any portfolio of policy measures, with a bottom-up approach, governments would focus on navigation, on maintaining course and momentum towards the goal of fundamental technological change, rather than on compliance with precise targets for emissions reductions. The flexibility of this inelegant approach would allow early mitigation efforts to serve as policy experiments from which lessons could be learned about what works, when and where. Thus cooperation, competition and control could all be brought to bear on the problem.
Update 23 November 2007: Prins and Rayner have now published the full version of their analysis.