You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A (partial) Defense Of Kyoto

Strange to say, but it's fast becoming conventional wisdom these days to argue that the Kyoto Protocol has been a flop, and that European countries are all cheerfully blowing right past their carbon targets. (I've been sympathetic to that argument in the past, though I hardly think it means that any global agreement—or emissions-trading regime—is pointless.) But over at Global Dashboard, policy analyst David Steven has a long post compiling evidence that Kyoto might be working effectively, after all. There are a lot of nuances and caveats packed in there, but here are the main points: 

  • It’s too early to say whether Kyoto has worked as advertised in Europe—but the evidence suggests that Europe as a whole will meet, or even exceed its targets.

  • Later reductions in emissions seem likely to be due to policy responses to Kyoto. Governments are reacting to the pressure that a binding target applies.

  • It’s likely that Europe would be emitting more if Kyoto had never been ratified—and it’s a real stretch to argue that the US is doing better than the EU on emissions.
  • There's also a smart rebuttal in comments by sometime-TNR contributor Ted Nordhaus, who co-wrote an essay in Democracy declaring Kyoto "dead." Nordhaus's main counterpoint is that most of the big emission cuts in the EU came about thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, as well as Margaret Thatcher's attack on the UK coal industry during the 1980s (which helped push Britain toward cleaner-burning natural gas)—and Kyoto can't claim credit for either of those things.

    It's difficult to referee that particular argument, but Nordhaus is certainly right that we should be awfully suspicious of any EU country meeting its emissions targets by buying "offsets" through Kyoto's Clean Development Mechanism, which has funded a number of dubious projects in the developing world, many of which may not reduce emissions at all. (John McCain's climate plan relies heavily on these types of offsets.) I'm still not convinced that Kyoto and its successors are doomed to failure, but it's certainly true that there are a lot of aspects that badly need to be repaired in the next round of talks.

    --Bradford Plumer