Just Say No to Greenhouse Gas Emissions Targets

The Kyoto Protocol’s targets are impeding our efforts to deal with climate change.

The emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol are dead, and the international community should let them rest in peace. Diplomatic necessity may require that the United Nations (UN) and signatory states to the treaty refrain from officially proclaiming their passing, but they should still be allowed to go quietly. Quantified emissions targets and timetables embody flaws so severe that they cannot be fixed by incremental adjustments. Happily, we can address the problems of climate change, including reducing the production of greenhouse gases (GHGs), in other ways. As Daniel Sarewitz of the Center for Science Policy and Outcomes and Roger Pielke, Jr. of the National Center for Atmospheric Research recently pointed out, measures to reduce people’s vulnerability to extreme weather events in the short run can move societies toward a longer-run adaptive climate strategy. In terms of mitigating climate change, James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and his collaborators have suggested a scenario in which the international community focuses on reducing non-CO2 GHGs first, leaving the problems of significantly reducing fossil fuel consumption for later. As to that latter goal, both international and domestic programs already exist that, with some modification and better financing, could facilitate a move to a more sustainable energy system. Spending time fighting over the Protocol emissions targets will just delay getting to the important tasks of making desperately needed improvements in the environmental and social conditions of the world’s people.

The Protocol’s emissions targets and the elaborate process that produced them show the dangers of drawing misguided lessons from past experience. The Kyoto Protocol attempted to do for greenhouse gases what the Vienna Convention and the Montreal Protocol did for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chemicals that deplete stratospheric ozone. The Montreal Protocol has enjoyed remarkable success for an international treaty, but that success does not make it a model for other issues unless they share crucial features with the ozone depletion issue. Climate change does not share those features.

The critiques in this paper are not based on skepticism about the nature and seriousness of climate change, and they are not intended to give aid and comfort to the diminishing band of greenhouse skeptics. I assume for this analysis that the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are correct. In its 1995 report, the IPCC claimed that strong evidence indicated that the global average temperature would warm by 2 to 3.5 degrees centigrade over the next hundred years. In addition, the report stated, in its now famous sentence, that “the balance of evidence . . . suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.” Press reports indicate that the next full IPCC report, due to be released in 2001, will only strengthen that language. The climate science community bases that conclusion not only on improved models but also on a growing body of evidence from, among others, the analysis of ice cores, changes in the timing of the seasons, and the thinning of Arctic ice. The potential effects of such warming are diverse and possibly severe. Although the science still contains substantial uncertainty, as climate scientist Stephen Schneider and others remind us, that uncertainty cuts both ways, so that the effects of climate change could be significantly worse than the models predict. That downside potential is all the more reason why we need policies that will actually help us to put off and cope with whatever changes will come. The Kyoto Protocol emissions targets will only hinder our collective ability to do that.

The GHG emissions targets are a core feature of the Protocol. Negotiated in 1997, the treaty specifies that industrial countries must reduce their GHG emissions by particular percentages below their 1990 levels. They have until about 2010 (the “commitment period” is between 2008 and 2012) to reduce their GHG emissions by 5 to 8 percent, depending on the circumstances of each country. The European Union committed to cutting its emissions to 92 percent of its 1990 level, the United States to 93 percent, and Australia to 108 percent. These cuts are bigger than they might appear at first glance. All the industrial countries would expect, without any sort of restrictions, that their emissions of GHGs would grow substantially between 1990 and 2010. Therefore, for the United States to bring its 2010 emissions down to 93 percent of its 1990 emissions means cutting them, by most estimates, by roughly a third of what they would otherwise be. This sort of quantitative goal and timetable may seem like little more than codified common sense. After all, emissions reductions are what we are after, and how do we know that countries are living up to their obligations to reduce GHG emissions unless we specify and measure those obligations quite precisely? Nonetheless, and perhaps counterintuitively, these quantitative targets create problems that seriously hinder our ability to actually accomplish the broader goal of reducing GHG emissions and developing adaptive policies for climate change.

Political obstacles

Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol faces immense political obstacles in the United States. The Senate must ratify it by a two-thirds vote. Before the delegates even met in Kyoto in 1997, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Virg.), sponsored a nonbinding resolution that the United States should not sign any climate change treaty that included specific emission reduction targets unless it also included “new specific scheduled commitments to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions for Developing Country Parties within the same compliance period.” The Byrd Resolution had 60 cosponsors and passed on July 25, 1997, by a vote of 95 to 0, a bipartisan majority that was, to say the least, infrequent in the 105th Congress. Coming less than five months before the Conference of the Parties in Kyoto, the resolution portended deep political trouble for the Protocol. The Berlin Mandate adopted by the Conference of the Parties two years earlier had specified that the developing countries would not have to adopt the same emissions targets or deadlines as the industrialized countries. Thus the Senate put the Kyoto delegates on notice that the only kind of treaty that could come out of Kyoto faced severe opposition in the United States. A few senators attended the Kyoto meeting as observers and reinforced that message.

The Protocol also faces opposition from several industries, which is no doubt related to its political difficulties in the Senate. Although a few high-profile companies, such as Ford Motor Company, have recently defected from anti-Kyoto groups, opponents of the treaty are still very much in evidence, appearing on editorial pages, at congressional hearings, and in other similar venues. The titles of some of the congressional hearings held after Kyoto indicate the political resistance. Hearings in the House were entitled “The Kyoto Protocol: Problems with U.S. sovereignty and the lack of developing country participation,” and “The Kyoto Protocol: Is the Clinton-Gore Administration selling out Americans?” These hearings took place in a bitterly contentious election year, which may explain some of the hyperbole surrounding the Protocol. Nonetheless, even if ratification is possible, it will require great effort from the president, friendly members of Congress, and environmental supporters. Such a concerted effort is neither likely to succeed nor a good use of these groups’ time.

Implementation problems

Even if the Senate were to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, policymakers have no idea how to implement it. They have many policy instruments at their disposal, but no one knows in any precise sense how they are connected to emissions reductions. As Steve Rayner of Columbia University has argued, such predictions of the effects of climate change policy are all but impossible to make with great confidence, are often bitterly contested themselves, and do not lead to consensus over the best policy. The instrument with the most direct effect on fossil fuel consumption–a carbon tax–is crude and imprecise. How big a tax would the United States need to achieve a seven percent reduction from 1990 levels? Leaving aside emissions measurement problems, the demand elasticities for fossil fuels could be different for each fuel, for different regions, and for different income classes. In addition, those elasticities could change over time or depend heavily on the availability of alternatives. Unless they were phased in slowly, taxes could also affect the economy and society in a variety of ways, many of them possibly bad, contributing to their lack of political popularity.

Despite these political problems, there are several good reasons to increase taxes on fossil fuels. A recent study by the International Center for Technology Assessment has argued that the market price of gasoline in the United States, for example, is well below its full social cost, which includes tax and other government subsidies as well as externalities. If those social costs were included in market prices, the retail price of gasoline would be much higher than the current market price. If the prices that consumers pay should reflect the social costs of the products they buy, and since the subsidies that keep prices too low may be too difficult politically to remove, one can make a good case for higher gasoline taxes. Nonetheless, political leaders who have proposed such taxes have encountered stiff resistance, even when reinforced by such obvious problems as local air pollution, sprawl, and uncertain security of supply. Recent events in France and Great Britain tell us that the resistance to fuel taxes is not a uniquely American problem. Advocates of such taxes get little political benefit from the need to reduce CO2 emissions, which often muddies the water with abstract and complex science.

Quantified emissions targets and timetables embody flaws so severe that they cannot be fixed by incremental adjustments.

More popular than taxes would be R&D programs on new energy technologies or other forms of subsidies. Such programs already exist, so the government could simply expand them, an effort I strongly support. Unfortunately, we also have very little understanding about how much emissions reduction we get for a dollar of R&D, tax credits, or similar interventions.

Historian of technology Thomas Hughes conceptualizes a technological system as the collection of machines, software, people, knowledge, and institutions that function together to provide some crucial good or service. The energy system in the United States is immense, complex, and quite mature; all of which suggests that it will resist change. Technological systems do change, often because of a crisis, but the process is never simple, and we know very little about how public policies can affect or guide such changes, which are also driven by other social institutions such as markets. Significantly reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels means, in the long run, transforming the current energy system, a task that requires considerable policy experimentation because we have no simple, straightforward policies that can ensure us of a precise outcome. In short, we do not know how to implement the Kyoto Protocol.

To make matters worse, the Kyoto Protocol is not enough. Numerous critics of the treaty have pointed out that the reductions mandated in it are nowhere near enough to prevent, or even appreciably slow, global warming. To prevent a doubling of CO2 levels, the industrial countries will have to make deeper cuts in their emissions, and the developing countries, such as China and India, will also have to restrict their emissions. The uncertainties in climate models mean that we only have a crude idea about how much we would need to lower emissions to prevent significant warming, but all those estimates suggest that the answer is substantially more than required by the treaty. Defenders of the emissions targets point out that they are just a first step. However, problems with this first step could make it all the harder to take the necessary later steps. As Rob Coppock noted in a previous Issues article, heavy investments in short-term reductions could delay investments in longer-term technological changes that could have a bigger effect in reducing GHG emissions.

Slippery goals

The Kyoto Protocol is based on quantitative emissions reductions goals and timetables for reaching those goals. Those goals have four principal weaknesses that, taken together, make them more harmful than they are worth. Ironically, they can actually impede reducing GHG emissions.

First, failure to reach the goals can breed cynicism. If most countries fail to meet the goals–a likely outcome given present trends–the whole enterprise falls into disrepute. To cover up these failures, international officials have an assortment of face-saving measures they can take, such as extending deadlines and granting exceptions for extraordinary circumstances. But such moves are merely ratifications of reality and point up the weakness of the treaty and the international institutions behind it.

Second, goals can become ceilings. In trying to reach a quantitative emissions goal, nations may come to regard the goal as enough, particularly if it is difficult to reach. New technologies, combined with changes in institutions or social practices, might provide the opportunities to exceed the goal, but such achievements might get no policy support if a country focuses simply on meeting its treaty obligations.

Third, emissions goals are very hard to measure, and they carry with them great uncertainty. Under the Protocol, the United States is supposed to reduce its emissions by seven percent below its 1990 levels. But what were the emissions in 1990, to say nothing of the present? We have no direct measures of such emissions, instead having to estimate them from a variety of sources. The reports on CO2 emissions rarely discuss this uncertainty, presenting instead simple point estimates without any error bars, which leaves us with numerous problems. How can we know when we have achieved the goal? If the uncertainties are larger than the proposed reductions, even if the point estimate drops by the required percent, the real emissions of GHGs might not have gone down at all.

The sorts of debates that these uncertainties engender lead to the fourth, and in some ways most important, shortcoming of this type of goal. Quantitative emissions goals for CO2 and other GHGs involve great uncertainty, considerable interpretation, and deeply contentious ethical disputes. There are dozens of things over which competing sides can fight. What efficiencies do analysts assume for various energy production processes? Does deforestation count as part of emissions? Does a country get GHG emissions reduction credit for planting trees? If so, how much? Does it depend on the species of tree? Making these emission estimates will require very complicated calculations, and government agencies, industries, and environmental groups will expend large amounts of time, talent, and political capital trying to influence how experts calculate those estimates. In the end, the arguments will focus on abstract and arcane issues related to estimating the goal, and all concerned will lose sight of what they were originally trying to do: reduce the production of GHGs.

The negotiations that concluded this past November in The Hague demonstrated these problems with a vengeance. Those talks, the Sixth Conference of the Parties, were supposed to work out the details of what actions would count as emissions reductions and how those actions would be counted. The talks ended in failure, in part because of disagreements among the countries over precisely these problems. Can the United States count reforestation as part of its commitment? How much of its commitment can it meet that way? Does using sinks to meet emissions reductions commitments at all violate the spirit of Kyoto? These questions and others like them stymied the negotiators at The Hague. Numerous commentators and environmental groups have blamed a variety of countries for the failure to reach a deal at the last minute. But the more important point is that the emissions reduction goals of Kyoto invite such wrangling and stalemates.

One might respond that this sort of goal-setting worked in the Montreal Protocol, but if we look carefully we can see that there are important differences. The Montreal Protocol does not put limits on emissions; it puts them instead on production and consumption. Over time, those limits go to zero and include bans on importing CFCs and related gases. These limits are much easier to monitor than GHG emissions. Regulated ozone-depleting substances, though they are growing in number, are few and are all manufactured intentionally in a modest number of facilities. In contrast, the most abundant GHG, CO2, is the unintended byproduct of literally hundreds of millions of separate combustion processes, all with varying technologies and efficiencies. Thus, it is considerably harder even to monitor CO2 production in a way analogous to that required for ozone-depleting substances.

Monitoring CO2 emissions, which is required by the Kyoto Protocol, presents even greater difficulties. Atmospheric CO2 is part of a natural carbon cycle, which has both natural sources and sinks as well as anthropogenic ones. Thus, estimating net emissions requires not only knowing what gets burned and how, but also how natural systems and the human activities that affect them, such as deforestation, reforestation, wetland destruction, and suburban sprawl, affect sources and sinks of CO2. Making such estimates is possible, and analysts do it all the time. The point here is that the process of getting such estimates is very complex, requiring that analysts make choices among an elaborate array of data, models, and assumptions. It is those choices that partisans can dispute, leading to the extraordinarily lengthy and esoteric debates that are so common in many technology policy areas. As Sarewitz and Pielke pointed out, climate change policy suffers from precisely this sort of endless debate. When those debates do come to closure, it is usually because the different sides negotiate out the contentious points, not because one side or the other wins a definitive technical victory. Such lengthy debates, even if they are eventually resolved, consume far too much time and energy from all concerned.

The failings of Kyoto are not reasons for despair.

The failings of Kyoto are not reasons for despair. Countries and international bodies can take numerous actions to address climate change problems that avoid the quagmire of trying to make precise changes in GHG emissions. First, as Sarewitz and Pielke argue, all countries can better prepare to lessen the damage that climate warming could cause. We already know how to prevent or alleviate harm from some of the problems we can expect from climate change. We already know how to minimize damage from hurricanes and flooding and how to deal with the spread of malaria mosquitoes. We can continue research in making agriculture more adaptable to changing weather patterns or in preserving species harmed by loss of wetlands. Some groups have been hostile or indifferent to such adaptive policies, seeing them as a way of avoiding doing anything about the root cause of climate change. But there is no reason why adaptation and mitigation cannot go hand in hand, and they could even reinforce each other.

As mentioned above, Hansen and his collaborators have argued that mitigation strategies should start with non-CO2 GHGs, particularly methane, CFCs, and the precursors to tropospheric ozone. Reducing each of these gases will require different policies and programs, since each comes from different activities. Fortunately, none of these policies will require radically new technologies. The Montreal Protocol is already phasing out CFCs. Fixing leaky gas pipelines or cleaning up transportation engines requires only well-understood technology. The problem is that changing deeply entrenched practices and interests is never as easy as the available technology might make it seem. All of these changes would have numerous environmental and social benefits beyond their ability to reduce GHG emissions, which is both a political and substantive plus for them.

In the longer run, reducing GHG emissions and solving more localized environmental problems will require a more sustainable energy system. Though it is hard to know exactly what such a system will look like, two central components of it should be greater energy efficiency and a growing use of renewable energy sources.

Energy efficiency technologies already exist that can produce the energy services that people want while using much less energy than is commonly the case. In industrial countries today, one can readily purchase high-efficiency lighting, heating, air conditioning, water heaters, appliances, and insulation for buildings. A few automobile manufacturers are beginning to test-market very high mileage automobiles. These technologies have the potential to cut fossil fuel consumption dramatically.

Unfortunately, consumers and businesses are not purchasing these technologies as rapidly as their prices would seem to warrant (in many cases, the energy efficient technologies are economically the best choices). Even businesses often fail to make the economically rational choice when buying energy-consuming products. Analysts still only poorly understand why that happens, and the reasons probably vary in different countries and in different sectors of the same economy.

Renewable energy technologies face a different set of problems. The market for renewable energy is growing worldwide, due to varying combinations of high energy prices, subsidies, and consumer demand for cleaner energy sources. The cost of renewable energy has been coming down steadily for two decades or more. For example, a 1999 study from the Renewable Energy Policy Project shows that the actual costs of producing electricity from renewable sources have declined faster than earlier projections anticipated. The technologies have done better than expected despite the weak and erratic federal support for R&D in the past 20 years. Despite this good news about costs, renewable energy technologies have not deeply penetrated large energy markets. The policies that will encourage the further growth of renewables will vary greatly from country to country, which leads to the question of what international treaties can do to encourage such developments.

Alternatives to emissions goals

Effective international actions to cope with climate change should be based on three principles. First, the international institutions that will implement climate change treaties must be understood as catalytic, not regulatory. Second, actions on climate change need to make effective use of the substantial institutional developments already in place around the globe. Third, the goals of the treaty must be process-oriented, not descriptions of some final outcome.

When the UN founded the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), its leaders described it as a catalytic agency. All concerned knew that UNEP would possess no regulatory powers in the conventional sense–that it could not be a global Environmental Protection Agency. International governance institutions succeed best when they can facilitate and encourage cooperation among nations. Only in rare circumstances to they possess coercive power, and even then it is hard for them to exercise such authority. Recognizing these limitations, UNEP’s founders conceived that its job was to catalyze actions among the nations, business firms, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had the authority and the resources to protect the environment. Though the climate change secretariat is not based in UNEP, the lesson remains the same. Effective treaties for coping with climate change must take that catalytic approach. The conditions that enabled the regulatory-type Montreal Protocol to work so well do not exist in the climate change area, so we need to move the treaties away from regulation and toward catalyzing action.

Climate change negotiations have resulted in substantial institution building, both internationally and nationally. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat, based in Bonn, employs about 100 staff and functions as a secretariat for both the FCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. Before the secretariat even existed, UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization (another specialized UN agency) established the IPCC in 1988. Housed at the World Meteorological Organization offices in Geneva, the IPCC prepares extensive technical reports on climate change, and in doing so works to build a scientific consensus on the technical aspects of the issue. These are only two of the most visible of the many international, regional, and national institutions designed to monitor GHG emissions and develop plans for reducing them. The expertise, political functions, and administrative capacities of these institutions could focus on tasks other than trying to monitor and enforce GHG emissions reductions targets. Those other tasks would be geared to the processes of changing social practices and technological systems to cope with climate change.

The goals of climate change treaties should focus on processes that will enable, encourage, and facilitate actions that will help nations protect their populations from the consequences of climate change and help them reduce their production of GHGs. These processes will be quite diverse, since they will concern both industrial countries (defined as Annex I countries in the Protocol) and less developed countries.

To illustrate this process orientation, consider the example of the Technology Cooperation Agreement Pilot Program (TCAPP). Created to help implement Article 4.5 of the FCCC, not the Kyoto Protocol, TCAPP creates partnerships between the United States, less developed nations, and private-sector businesses in order to improve the energy efficiency and use of renewable energy in those countries. The program uses teams from each of the target countries, assisted by U.S. facilitators, to develop energy efficiency and renewable energy programs specific to those countries. TCAPP does not have any specific emissions reductions goals or particular technologies that it promotes. Instead, its goals are tailored to the circumstances of individual countries. Each TCAPP host country team decides its own priorities in terms of what sorts of energy efficiencies it seeks and whether it wishes to include renewable energy in its plans. Clearly, increasing the use of efficiency and renewables can have the effect of reducing CO2 emissions, depending on the extent to which the new technologies replace, and not simply augment, the old ones. Just as important, such new energy systems can help to address a host of other more local environmental and social problems. In addition, the process of engaging local governments, the private sector, and international institutions creates the opportunities for these actors to develop the capacity to take other steps beyond the first one. In short, this process orientation makes it possible that these modest first steps could lead to later ones, instead of being a technical stalemate that leads to cynicism and a dead end. One important advantage of a TCAPP-type program is that it gets international institutions away from the difficult and contentious business of monitoring and measuring, or even establishing a baseline for, CO2 emissions. Instead, they can monitor the easier metrics, such as the spread and adoption of the new technologies, the funds expended on them, the number of such programs, and so on. As such technologies become more widespread, they can begin to define a sustainable path for the evolution of the world’s energy systems.

We need to move climate change treaties away from regulation and toward catalyzing action.

Programs such as TCAPP fit very well into a process-oriented framework. It also lets countries define for themselves the best way to address climate change issues, since those issues also touch on so many other, perhaps more immediate, problems. A major shortcoming for TCAPP is, of course, funding. It must do quite a bit on very little money. This political problem is, in this case, a function of the unwillingness and even hostility toward such programs by some policymakers in the United States. That hostility is based, in part, on objections to the emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol and the perception that those targets will unfairly punish wealthy countries. More strongly worded international treaties will not change that domestic political reality. Those concerned with better supporting energy efficiency and renewable energy in the United States need to worry more about changing domestic policy than trying to embroil the country in an international treaty that would allegedly force the country to change its domestic policies. Though the factors involved are case-specific, the United States has shown its willingness simply to ignore its international obligations, as evidenced by congressional refusal to pay the country’s UN dues.

Though hostility toward the Kyoto Protocol is particularly high in the United States, other countries are also reluctant to ratify it. As of the beginning of 2000, only 22 of the 84 signatory states had ratified it. The Protocol’s Article 25 states that it does not enter into force until at least 55 states, including a significant number of the industrialized states, have ratified it. It is entirely possible that the Protocol will never become international law.

The Protocol requires a major overhaul. It is based fundamentally on the monitoring, reduction, and trading of GHG emissions: a foundation that guarantees stiff political opposition and years of arcane technical arguments, absorbing the time, energy, and money of many participants. Nations, the UN, and NGOs organizations have so many diplomatic, financial, and technical resources tied up in Kyoto that it would be tragic for it to fail now; such a failure would set back international climate change efforts for years. It is time to let go of the failed emissions targets and seek new paths that will better serve everyone’s needs.

Recommended Reading

  • Rob Coppock, “Implementing the Kyoto Protocol,” Issues in Science and Technology 14, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 66-74.
  • James Hansen et al., “Global Warming in the Twenty-First Century: An Alternative Scenario,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97, no. 18 (August 29, 2000): 9875­9880.
  • IPCC Second Assessment synthesis summary document, available at www.unfccc.de.
  • James McVeigh, Dallas Burtraw, Joel Darmstadter, and Karen Palmer, “Winner, Loser, or Innocent Victim? Has Renewable Energy Performed as Expected?” Research Report no. 7, March 1999 (available at www.repp.org).
  • Peter Morrisette, “The Montreal Protocol: Lessons for Formulating Policies for Global Warming,” Policy Studies Journal 19, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 152­161.
  • Steve Rayner, “Prediction and Other Approaches to Climate Change Policy,” chap. 13 in Prediction: Science, Decision Making, and the Future of Nature, ed. Daniel Sarewitz, Roger A. Pielke, Jr., and Radford Byerly, Jr. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000), 269­296.
  • Stephen H. Schneider, “The Changing Climate,” Scientific American (September 1989): 70­79.
  • William K. Stevens, “Split over Poorer Countries’ Role Puts Cloud on Global Warming Talks,” New York Times, December 6, 1997.
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Cite this Article

Laird, Frank N. “Just Say No to Greenhouse Gas Emissions Targets.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 2 (Winter 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 2, Winter 2001