Saving Kyoto - An Insider's Guide to the Kyoto Protocol

Anthony Giddens feels the authors have looked at carbon trading through rose-tinted glasses

October 1, 2009

Many see 2009 as the make-or-break year for the struggle to contain climate change. In December, representatives of about 190 countries are scheduled to meet in Copenhagen under the auspices of the UN. They will try to reach a consensus about how to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming - originating mainly from the burning of fossil fuels. Such reductions will have to become progressively more radical over the next three decades if climate change is to be managed at a level at which its consequences will not pose a serious threat to humanity.

The Copenhagen meetings are being held to replace the existing set of prescriptions established in Kyoto in 1997, known collectively as the Kyoto Protocol. The details of the protocol took a long time to thrash out. It came into operation only in 2005 and expires in 2012 - hence the need for a new set of accords to replace it.

This book is about "saving Kyoto" - preserving the framework created by the protocol - but, as the authors emphasise, we need to do far more than that. Kyoto was at best "a start, an initial attempt" to provide a collective response to the dangers that threaten all nations. Graciela Chichilnisky played a significant part in helping forge the Kyoto agreements, and the book takes the reader through the tortuous debates and negotiations needed to establish them. The authors are forceful advocates of the key role that carbon markets can play in controlling emissions. Chichilnisky pushed hard to make such markets central to the Kyoto agreements, as indeed became the case. She and her co-author Kristen Sheeran argue that they must remain central to whatever provisions emerge at Copenhagen.

Why? Chichilnisky and Sheeran offer several reasons. Carbon markets can harness what the authors call "the magic of markets" and apply that magic to controlling emissions. Carbon markets are superior to carbon taxes, which cannot be applied above a national level since there is no system of international taxation. Moreover, carbon taxes do not guarantee far-reaching emissions reductions, since some or many of those affected may ignore the costs involved and simply go on as before. The heavy taxes levied on cigarettes and alcohol may have stimulated some changes in behaviour, but smoking and alcohol consumption remain very widespread.

Carbon markets, the authors point out, are far more flexible than taxes. Moreover they provide a way for the industrialised nations, which have been responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gases that have gone into the atmosphere, to help developing nations introduce low-carbon technologies. The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) set up at Kyoto allows rich countries to invest in clean-energy programmes in poorer nations, counting the emissions savings thereby achieved as credits ("carbon offsets") towards their own emissions reduction targets. Such credits can be sold in the carbon market. There have been many problems with the CDM, but again the authors argue that it has been an indispensable first step towards a more effective strategy that, it is hoped, will be initiated at Copenhagen.

The US didn't ratify the Kyoto Protocol, but will play a part in the Copenhagen negotiations - even if Barack Obama's climate change legislation hasn't passed through Congress by then. Such negotiations, just like those at Kyoto, are certain to be arduous and difficult, and their outcome is uncertain. There is at least the chance of achieving a truly global programme for the future. This book provides a useful backdrop, especially for the uninitiated, to the issues at stake.

However, some of those more deeply involved are likely to have reservations about the authors' main arguments, especially the great weight given to carbon markets. They frequently refer to the "global carbon market" as though it were an established fact - but there is no worldwide carbon market and it will be a long time before such a thing comes into being, if ever. The main carbon market in existence at the moment - the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) - has proven ineffective in its first version; it remains to be seen how far the revisions being introduced will improve its performance.

Surprisingly, the authors do not discuss in any detail the criticisms that have been made of carbon markets, or examine the shortcomings of the EU ETS. Even more surprisingly, they seem to measure what they speak of as the success of carbon markets simply in terms of the revenue they have generated, obviously a false criterion. As for the "magic of markets", well, that idea is under something of a shadow at present. Finally, the book is marred by constant repetitions, as if it has somehow escaped the scrutiny of a copy-editor.

Saving Kyoto - An Insider's Guide to the Kyoto Protocol: How it Works, Why it Matters and What it Means for the Future

By Graciela Chichilnisky and Kristen A. Sheeran

New Holland Publishers, 208pp, £9.99

ISBN 9781847734310

Published 15 September 2009

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