Sunday, November 20, 2005

Another nail in Kyoto's coffin?

I suggested in a post some time ago that Bush's decision to pull out of the Kyoto agreement was most damaging in that it made heroes out of villains, in that it allowed those on course to meet their meagre Kyoto committments as champions of the global environment. This meant, in turn, that the entire international response to the issue of climate change was set back: from being in a position of having, essentially, to apologise for the almost embarassingly small and deeply insufficient first step that Kyoto in fact represented, politicians such as Blair now found themselves occupying the moral high ground once again.

Jut how far it was set back is beginning to become clear. Margaret Beckett, the UK environment secretary, has told the Observer that the British government is to seek a new deal on climate change, which may be based upon voluntary targets rather than firm, legal commitments. This, of course, is very different from the philosophy behind the Kyoto Protocol; and, perhaps predictably, major environmental NGOs are strongly against the move. However, for whatever reasons, Kyoto has not been the success that many hoped it would be; and, for many commentators, this failure was evident as soon as the details of the agreement became clear. Emissions trading and carbon sink schemes introduced a large degree of uncertainty to already-inadequate reduction targets; and this, coupled with the fact that there was no commonly accepted body of scientific knowledge, that had been so central to the success of the Montreal Protocol to the Ozone Convention, had been built up in the context of climate change, meant that the likelihood that Kyoto would prove a significant weapon in the fight against global warming was slim.

Even the most ardent of its supporters, however, insisted upon its significance as a "first step"; the first time that the international community had agreed to be bound by legal reduction targets. This argument was never entirely convincing, as the metaphor used seems to rely on a certain optimism of future progress; evidence for the political will to support this optimism, however, has always been thin on the ground.

Perhaps, then, it is time to try a new approach and to acknowledge that the Kyoto Protocol itself is something of a dead horse. The great problem with this that, where evidence for optimism concerning Kyoto is decidedly thin on the ground, it seems almost non-existent in the case of voluntary targets. In response to assertions by Bush and Blair that states will not accept stricter targets for fear it would hamper economic growth, Beckett responds that

Actually, there is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that you can do things to tackle climate change without damaging your economy... If you look at some major global companies that have started to take steps to tackle their own emissions, far from being economically damaging its actually economically beneficial.

Here, for me, lies the problem with voluntary targets in this field. Beckett's chosen line of argument would seem to invite the conclusion that problems of climate change and economic growth can both be solved at once by the correct policies. Her rhetoric leaves no room for the plausible conclusion that effective measures on climate change will have a negative impact on economic growth, in the short- to medium-term at least. She thus implies that states or companies would not have to act in a manner contrary to their economic interests; naturally, voluntary targets come to seem a much more attractive, even ambitious, prospect in such a context.

The trouble is that it seems very unlikely that the increasingly urgent issue of climate change can be addressed only by policies that are also economically beneficial. The threats posed by global warming, though undoubtedly very real, are as yet far too future, too abstract, to prevail over economic concerns in the short- to medium-term. The drive to achieve voluntary targets would thus be subordinated to the economically beneficial - a conclusion, indeed, that Beckett implicitly encourages in the passage quoted above. Of course, "doing things to tackle climate change without damaging the economy" is not the same thing as taking the measures neccesary to effectively solve this increasingly urgent global problem; in fact, we may be very sceptical indeed as to whether the first will even come close to confronting the second.

Of course, it was exactly this fear, that economic considerations would remove any incentive to do what was necessary to tackle climate change that led to calls for "hard" legal commitments in the first place. Perhaps, then, it may be worth flogging Kyoto for a while yet..

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