09 October, 2009

Why we should abandon the Kyoto Protocol and aim higher

The answer is simple: we don’t want a future of decay. We want a major breakthrough for humankind. As significant as the Enlightenment was. The path to a society where all the potential present in today’s scientific, technological and societal change can fully flourish and lead to a new stage of human evolution.

Sergio Abranches

The Kyoto Protocol has failed on almost all counts. It was remarkably durable. Yet, it’s single noticeable virtue was to act as a catalyst for the development and experimentation of regional and global carbon markets, as Mike Hulme argues. But these markets weren’t even capable of stopping the growth of carbon emissions. Its flaws far outweighed its very few benefits. It has become a shield for large emerging emitters to elide their responsibilities. It conveys a mediocre vision of the future, it is a treaty for muddling-through, not for progress.

Sergio Abranches

Kyoto took too long to come into force, and when it did, it was ineffective. The Protocol was mostly a political contraption, having no firm scientific or economic basis. As Oliver Tickell writes it has “emerged from a maelstrom of negotiation and horse trading dominated by national, political and commercial vested interests”.

At the time of the negotiations, the scientific consensus about global warming and climate change was not as overwhelming as it is today. Dissenting voices were still taken seriously. Not now. Hard evidence of accelerating global warming and climate change has increased manyfold since then. Kyoto does not represent the present state of the World regarding climate change risks and opportunities.

I am not going to discuss in detail Kyoto’s failures. I recommend Mike Hulme’s “Why We Disagree About Climate Change”; Oliver Tickell’s “Kyoto 2”; Nicholas Stern’s “The Global Deal”; Anthony Giddens“The Politics of Climate Change”; Scott Barrett’s “Climate change negotiations reconsidered”.

Suffice it to say that the Kyoto Protocol has no targets for large emerging countries, and mediocre ones for developed countries. China, India and Brazil have interpreted its clause of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, as no obligation at all. A new deal would have to set more clearly that all large emitters, developed and emerging, have shared responsibilities, that lead to binding, though differentiated, quantitative commitments. Developed countries do have a carbon debt, but it cannot be paid with waivers for emerging countries to follow their high carbon path. It has to be paid with the creation of financial and technical mechanisms to help them thread a new low carbon path.

Kyoto failed to provide a sound financial mechanism for adaptation. The new deal has to set adaptation as a high priority and devise the institutional financial means to effectively help poorer countries to adapt to climate change, while establishing new, low-carbon economic activities to generate employment and income, and fight extreme poverty.

The Protocol has been inefficient and ineffective regarding all its main goals. It is too flexible. It’s compliance mechanism too weak. It has failed to change the behavior of its parties, admitted non-compliance, induced generalized complacency. No wonder, it will not  even meet its mediocre target of around 5% decrease in GHG emissions by 2012. Next to the required 90% fall by 2030, it has been a dismal one. As Nicholas Stern points out, “from 1930 to 1950, the concentration of Kyoto gases increased by about 0.5 ppm per annum, from 1950 to 1970 by around 1 ppm per annum, and from then until 1990 the rate of increase doubled again. In the past decade [the one Kyoto was supposed to address] it has been around 2.5 ppm a year.”

One of the pillars of the Kyoto Protocol was the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). It was a good idea that helped to provide the catalyst for the development of the global carbon markets, as Hume ponders. However, as Stern says, in its current form it is not able to generate or absorb the financial and technical flows needed under a “global deal”. The mechanism is too complex and too bureaucratic. It is based on the unfettered discretion of regulatory and bureaucratic agents. In Brazil, for instance, one bureaucrat alone has been able to totally stall the licensing process. It is prone to idiosyncratic behavior, leading to different outcomes, at different countries, largely impossible to be systematically compared for evaluation purposes. What is required is a new conceptual and methodological non-discretionary framework, to reduce transaction costs, gain scale and expedite decision-making.

It should not be the pivotal mechanism for the whole deal, but part of a system of mechanisms with the ultimate goal of promoting a technological revolution, as Scott Barrett   contends. The global deal should not be designed to have as its final goal meeting the emissions targets. This is a critical goal, but its sustainability depends on a new political economy, a new industrial revolution. This new political economy requires a full-blown technological revolution. To create momentum for such a technological breakthrough we’ll need wise market inducements and regulatory constraints.

To meet this ultimate goal, that will guide us into a low-carbon society, we do need market mechanisms, and the institutional discipline of a global new green deal, but we should concentrate most of our attention on the state, and the new governance needs. The “state will have a major role in all countries in setting a framework for these endeavors,” as Giddens argues.

The basics for a new global deal are already well known: GHG emissions of developed countries should peak by around 2015 to subsequently decrease continually and fast. GHG emissions of emerging powers (especially China, India and Brazil) should peak by 2020, to then converge towards developed countries’ trajectories. Global emissions should drop to 50% of 1990 levels by 2050, at least, and global per capita emissions should reach at least 1 ton by 2050. The goal is to eventually stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases. Scott Barrett correctly stresses that “there is disagreement about what this stabilization level should be.” It is now clear that before even thinking about stabilizing we must ensure they reach 350 ppm.

Stabilization, says Barrett, “requires that the atmosphere and the oceans be in chemical balance. Over time, take up by the oceans will decline as emissions fall. In equilibrium, if concentrations are to be stabilized, emissions will have to fall to zero.”

Kyoto has left the world forest out of its mechanisms. The new deal must find a way to include them and create the means to encourage zero-deforestation and the maximum possible afforestation targets.

We’ve got to create the conditions to write these goals into a binding agreement. Governments should adhere and provide the domestic governance required to meet these goals. The governments among indisputable large emitters, that are today in denial, are betraying the concrete interests of their people, not forsaking any moral obligation to humankind.

The deal must be ambitious. We must aim high and look far. Those proposing negotiations to aim at what’s possible, are looking for something impossible to have: an incremental, muddling-through solution to a cataclysmic threat.

Looking into the limits of the possible is to wish for accommodation. It is a self-defeating formula. We’ve been accommodating, compromising, tolerating, and failing to mitigate and adapt. We are building a dystopia, envisioning doomsday, almost unconsciously, through complacency and lack of vision.

What we need is ambition, boldness, climate radicalism, rather than political maneuvering, or diplomatic wavering. We’ve got to have a dream, a global dream. The low-carbon society is possible, it is within our reach. We’re not talking about de-growth. De-growth is the threat ahead if we keep with our dystopian outlook. We are talking about a new development pattern. A turning point like the passage from the Middle Ages to Enlightenment, like the transition from feudalism to capitalism via the Industrial Revolution. We’ve done it before. We can mitigate global warming, improve our well-being and fight global poverty. Why should we accept our future history to be poorer than our past history?

Dystopia leads to paralysis, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Utopias breed revolutions. We can be technical, practical, and effective, and yet have a dream, pursuit an Utopia for ourselves and the generations ahead.

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