Kyotastrophe - the Kyoto Protocol’s Inequitable Failure


Rising temperatures. Wild hurricanes. Severe droughts. Disappearing shorelines. Shrinking ice caps. Climate change is an urgent test presented to every person living on the planet—and right now, we are failing. Unlike two decades ago, when a true/false response could withstand electoral pressures, political leaders today are expected to have answers to a far more intimidating question: What should we do to reduce the speed of climate change? In 1997, world leaders proposed a solution to this question. Government representatives from 170 states convened, and negotiated their way to form a single plan of action: the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol called for thirty-eight states to reduce greenhouse gases emissions to 5 percent below their emission levels in 1990 between 2008 and 2012. But not all 38 committed to the plan, as the United States never ended up ratifying the agreement and Canada withdrew from the Protocol days prior to the end of the first commitment period.

Fundamental to the Protocol’s design was the classification of states into “Annex B” and “non-Annex B” states. Only the 38 states listed as Annex B were given quantifiable reduction targets, whereas the non-Annex B states had no obligation except to cooperate with Annex B states for technological, educational, and research purposes. As a result of this categorization, a decision to ratify the Protocol was meaningfully different for an Annex B state and a non-Annex B state; the former was required to voluntarily submit to reduce emission, the latter only to make a nominal pledge to the cause. As a consequence of the classification, the Protocol was acutely limited in scope, despite its impressive, near universal membership.

The Annex B states were not chosen at random. They were the world’s most developed economies and were responsible in 1990 for at least 55 percent of global emissions. The Protocol did not impose comprehensive reduction goals partly because the negotiating governments presumed that a global solution to climate change should be fair. Given that “the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries,” the world leaders acknowledged that the developed countries should be held more responsible for causing and remedying the effects of climate change. Underlying the logic for classification was also the understanding that developing countries would face “special difficulties” in complying with the reduction standards.

“Common but differentiated responsibility” encapsulates the notion that climate change is a shared burden for all, but it is distributed unequally. This phrase was derived from the Protocol’s predecessor, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Though it was an ineffective law that lacked enforcement mechanism and material goals, the UNFCCC passed down the controversial legacy of country classification to the Kyoto Protocol.

The trouble began when “differentiated” was emphasized more than “common.” Despite theoretically sharing at least a little bit of responsibility, non-Annex B states were not subjected to any material obligation. A realistic look at the Protocol yields the unfortunate conclusion that developed countries became the only ones considered responsible for and capable of reducing climate change effects.

Post-Kyoto, there was both good and bad news. The good news was that the thirty-six compliant Annex B states exceeded the 5 percent expectation, and achieved a total of 22 percent reduction from the 1990 emission levels. The bad news was that none of the top emitters in 2012 were among those 36 countries. Instead, the top 3 emitters, collectively responsible for 51 percent of the world’s emissions, were China (29 percent), the United States (16 percent) and India (6 percent).

In hindsight, the Kyoto Protocol was a poor solution. It failed to reduce global carbon emissions, which have caused atmospheric levels to reach 400 parts per million (ppm) today and to continue to increase at a rate of 2 ppm every year. To highlight the gravity of these numbers, Dr. James Hansen, the nation’s leading climatology expert, stated unequivocally in 2008 that a level of 385 ppm is “incompatible with the continuance of life on Earth as we know it.” In other words, we have sped past all warning signs and still have yet to figure out a way to slow down the train.

So why did the Kyoto Protocol fail? Two camps of critics can be identified: the framework supporters and the framework denouncers. To the framework supporters, the Protocol was a good plan that did not include enough or the appropriate Annex B participants. These critics believe in mandatory reduction targets as crucial to the goal of constraining global emissions. They emphasize the necessity of placing the top three emitters under strict reduction goals. To them, the fact that thirty-six Annex B states surpassed the original expectations proves the effectiveness of the Protocol’s compliance mechanism.

The second camp of critics says that the Protocol was a bad plan and should be abandoned. These framework denouncers believe that the thirty-six Annex B states’ compliance was coincidental, and emphasize several alternative factors to explain the overachievement. First, before 1997, transitional economies reduced emissions following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, the non-participation of the US and Canada skewed evaluations of the treaty’s outcome. Third, the 2008-2009 international economic crisis decreased emissions. They opine that the Kyoto Protocol was far from effective and that there must be a radical departure from the 1997 illusion that all states should participate in one plan. Specifically, these critics raise the following provocative questions:

Can a negotiation involving fewer countries be more effective, considering that fewer than 20 out of the 191 countries are responsible for 80 percent of all emission? Can multiple agreements be more effective than one? Can the Protocol’s top-down approach construct a genuine emission market? Is the Protocol detracting attention away from clean energy and innovation?

Frankly, there is little conflict between the two camps of critics. The Kyoto Protocol may not be the best or the only necessary treaty, but it is one that is on the table, quite literally, as 191 states committed to adopt a succeeding agreement by December of this year. Each state will then decide whether to ratify the successor agreement, which is expected to take effect in 2020. Given the tremendous time pressures of climate change, ditching emission reduction targets for a brand new framework is unwise. However, the successor to Kyoto should by no means be considered as the only plan. Further agreements should be developed on smaller scales among principal emitters.

If the aim for the Kyoto successor is to place the top three emitters under quantifiable emission reduction obligations, two hurdles must be overcome. The first hurdle is to ensure that the US ratifies the treaty. The second is to convince China and India to submit to reduction obligations.

Unlike domestic laws, an international treaty between governments depends on robust voluntary participation and strong compliance from all parties. The Kyoto Protocol had mechanisms that were designed to deter defection without deterring participation. But though the Protocol generally had a strong compliance record, the lack of US participation significantly qualified its effect.

In short, the United States refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because it was unhappy with the fact that only Annex B states were required to reduce emission. The President and the Senate collectively hold the power to ratify an international agreement under Article 3, section 2 of the Constitution and the Senate in 1997 preemptively passed a 95-0 Byrd-Hagel resolution declaring its intention to never ratify a treaty that would harm the American economy. Former President George W. Bush further disclaimed “the scientific knowledge of the cause of… global climate change.” Despite the State Department’s shameless rhetoric that the US “[was] taking a leading role in addressing climate change,” the country increased emission in 2012 by 4 percent from the 1990 baseline level.

To justify the decision, representatives of the American government repeatedly identify the outrage as one directed at the Protocol’s design. President Bush said that he did not agree with a plan that “exempts 80 percent of the world… from compliance [with emission reduction targets].” In other words, the United States chose not to participate in a plan that was selectively enforced and therefore unfair. Without the public exerting pressure on the Senate and the president, the United States can repeat its old trick by vigorously negotiating a deal and then walking away.

On the other hand, while both are parties to the Kyoto Protocol, China and India cannot actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions with purely symbolic participation. Facing a Kyoto successor that could push for universal emission reduction obligations, the two developing countries are already making powerful arguments against it based on fairness. Prodipto Ghosh, a member of the Indian Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, argues that historic differentiated responsibility of climate change can be quantified, as the greenhouse gases once produced remained in the atmosphere for an extended period of time to cause the rise in temperature. Ghosh calculated individual states’ emission since 1890 and began his analysis under the assumption that all states must be given fair opportunity to develop and pollute to similar extents. The aggregated result was shocking and showed that developed countries have exceeded their share of emission to such an overwhelming degree that other developing countries are “entitled” to continue emitting at current rates for at least another decade.

If the objective were fairness, the thirty-six complying Annex B states could argue that not all states contributed to the rise of temperature or emitted greenhouse gases to the same degree to warrant for equal percentage reduction. Many countries could interpret their own version of fairness as one based on carbon consumption, emission per capita, or energy innovation. Every country could analyze the data differently and build a case advantageous to their own evasion of the commitment to reduce emissions.

But it is clear that the objective of the Kyoto Protocol and its successor is not and should not be fairness. So what if the prevention of a global catastrophe is not carried out “fairly”? Will each country stop short at whatever it considers to be unfair? Demanding fairness is a procrastination tactic to justify one’s inaction. It is cowardly rhetoric and it should be recognized as exactly that. •