Kyoto has failed, we must rethink climate change policy

Gwyn Prins

The world must follow Japan in a radical rethink of climate change policy.

The global economy is not decarbonising — it is recarbonising

There must be a much larger commitment to fundamental energy technology R &D

A gale is lashing orthodox climate policy. This week, an article was published in the journal Nature that should shake the certainty of anyone who assumes that the Kyoto protocol approach is the sensible way to go, and that signing the accord is a responsible step for the United States to take.

Three climate experts offer some inconvenient truths. Roger Pielke, Tom Wigley and Christopher Green are far from being climate change sceptics, but they are vigorous heretics about some of the orthodoxy of the debate. They show it is even more urgent than we thought to abandon the failed Kyoto strategy and move quickly to policies which might actually reduce carbon emissions. Any workable strategy has to include India and China: Kyoto did not. As they rapidly industrialise and reduce poverty, their CO{-2} emissions will rise — by as much as 13 per cent a year for the period from 2000 to 2010, in the case of China.

The Nature piece is titled “Dangerous assumptions”. The most dangerous assumption is how all the scenarios that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published have a built-in assumption that misleads us about the magnitude of the emissions challenge. It shows that the technological challenge is at least twice as big as people believe. So this is where the rubber hits the road.

The IPCC has assumed that about three-quarters of the emissions reduction required to stabilise CO{-2} will occur “spontaneously”. It would arrive as a free rider on the back of the well-documented trend which indicates that, after an initial upswing, the energy intensity of industrial societies has a record of impressive and continuous decline. What does that mean?

Energy intensity is an elegant and potent function which shows the relationship, over time, between a standardised unit of production — say £1,000 of gross domestic product — and the amount of energy used to make it. Until recently, mature industrial economies have become less energy-intensive: through greater efficiency they have used less and less energy per unit of production during the later 20th century. Japan is the world leader in this respect.

But “Dangerous assumptions” shows that, globally, this is no longer the case. Principally because of the rapid industrialisation of India and China, reduction in energy intensity has levelled out or reversed in recent years. The global economy is not decarbonising — it is recarbonising. This was noticed by the experts in the IPCC but not reported in its Summary for Policymakers, the politically negotiated document mostly read by politicians and journalists. If the free rider of decarbonisation is not available, the challenge to move quickly to a radically different type of global climate policy is all the greater. What would a materially effective policy do? It would break the link between poverty reduction and carbon emission. It would recognise that the developing world needs to consume — and will consume — more energy, not less. It would recognise that attempting to control human-created carbon emissions by setting binding output targets and relying on artificial carbon markets and dodgy offsets, as Kyoto does, has not and never will work.

Such policy would shift to the input side, and concentrate on radical improvements in the production and use of energy. It would focus first on the sectors of all economies that are the heaviest consumers of energy: power generation, building, cement and metals production. The sectors that western environmentalists have prioritised hitherto, such as road and air transport, should be much further down the list. If all automobile use in the U.S. stopped tonight, the reduction in global emissions would be less than six per cent. Instead, there must be a much larger commitment to fundamental energy technology research and development.

Is there any hope of this happening? Fortunately, there is. At the Bali climate conference in 2007, the geopolitical centre of gravity for climate policy shifted decisively away from the Kyoto enthusiasts, such as Al Gore and the EU, to the Pacific. Despite the headlines about the superficial isolation of the U.S. because of its continuing refusal to sign Kyoto, on deeper matters the U.S. was not alone, and certainly not on the need for a fundamental rethink of climate policy, of which all the presidential campaigns are becoming aware.

The shape of the future agenda may reside with Japan. Supported by other Pacific powers, it is leading a profound shift to an approach emphasising radical improvements in energy intensity. This concentrates initially on the most energy-intensive sectors, with ambitious plans for both technology research and development and technology transfer to help China and India reduce the impact of their programmes of coal burning, which are an inescapable feature of the next 30 years. CO{-2} targets, which evidence shows do not work as mandatory drivers of policy, can remain as helpful indicative guides.

This strategy will be a centrepiece of July’s meeting of the G-8 near Hokkaido. The vital importance of the tree-shaking analysis in Nature is that it gives reasons for anybody who takes climate policy seriously — and not just as a surrogate for playing other sorts of political games — to welcome and follow these Japanese guides, travelling the hard but necessary road from Kyoto to Hokkaido.

( Gwyn Prins is a professor at the London School of Economics & Political Science and is co-author with Steve Rayner of The Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy (James Martin Inst./Mackinder Centre). )

Recommended for you