Kyoto: The Best We Can Do or Fatally Flawed?

Kyoto -- The Best We Can Do or Fatally Flawed?

Speech by Eileen Claussen, President
Pew Center on Global Climate Change

The Royal Institute of International Affairs Conference
London, England

June 20, 2000

Thank you very much. It is a pleasure to be here as your final keynote speaker. Being last is both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, it is very hard to say something new and exciting when you are last, now that so much has been said already. On the other hand, we all know that we tend to remember best the things we heard last. So it is in that spirit that I shall try to be three things at once in my remarks: humorous (to keep you awake); articulate (so that what I say can be recalled); and thoughtful (so that what I say is actually worth recalling.)

The title of my remarks today is The Kyoto Protocol: The Best We Can Do or Fatally Flawed? Having been presented with this either/or choice, I couldn't help thinking of a quote from Woody Allen. "More than any other time in history," he said, "mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Facing a similarly agonizing choice of declaring the Kyoto Protocol either the best we can do or fatally flawed, I have decided that I will not make a choice at all. And that leaves open two possibilities. The first is to reconfigure the title of my remarks by replacing the "or" with an "and" so it would read, The Kyoto Protocol: The Best We Can Do and Fatally Flawed. But I simply do not believe this is the case.

Instead, my preference is to call my remarks The Kyoto Protocol: Neither the Best We Can Do nor Fatally Flawed. And with that, perhaps we can move on to what is really important, and that is that the Protocol exists. We did it, we have it, and we need to work on it so it can be an effective instrument for getting us where I think we all agree we want to be: on a path toward reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Not the Best We Can Do

So allow me to begin with a brief discussion of some of the Protocol's most serious problems. We all know that for an international accord such as this to be effective, it must have the support of as many countries as possible. This is because every country has some degree of responsibility for the problem we are dealing with--although, of course, some countries have much more responsibility than others—and because everyone needs to play at least some part in the solution.

But while we all know that international support is important, I think sometimes we forget how important it is as we try to move as quickly as possible to reach a deal. And so we create a treaty that reflects our beliefs about what should happen to address the matter at hand but that overlooks the reality of what can happen—or what countries around the world are honestly willing and able to achieve.

At the same time that a treaty must aim for truly global participation, it also must achieve a relatively high degree of compliance. The issues of participation and compliance, in fact, are closely linked. To achieve maximum participation, it is essential to insure that the requirements in the agreement are realistic—in other words, that the Parties to an agreement can accomplish what the agreement requires. This is not to say that the requirements must be easy, that they must be achieved by all Parties in the same way, or that they must be equal in stringency for all Parties. But what is clear is that they must be achievable. If they are set too high, this inevitably will discourage participation because some may choose to opt out rather than be declared out of compliance, and the global agreement that we all so strongly desire will become less global and therefore less effective in meeting our ultimate goal.

A third important issue I want to touch on, after participation and compliance, is measurability. As important as making sure that a treaty's objectives are reasonable—and that nations have the ability and the will to achieve them—is the challenge of insuring that compliance with the treaty's objectives is measurable. The measurability issue reminds me of a story I recently heard about a group of managers who were given the assignment of measuring the height of a flagpole. And so they bring out their tape measures and their pens and paper, and they struggle for a time with their ladder, never quite able to set it up against the flagpole without it falling down on their heads. Just then, along comes an engineer who sees what they're trying to do. And, he walks over, pulls the flagpole out of the ground, lays it flat, measures it from end to end, gives the measurement to one of the managers, and then walks away.

After the engineer is gone, one manager turns to another and laughs. "Isn't that just like an engineer! We're looking for the height and he gave us the length!"

Whether you think it is funny or not, the story does shed some light on the challenge we face in structuring international treaties with measurable goals. We need to make absolutely certain we are able to measure our progress in achieving the treaty's goals, or else we will start to look like the group of managers around the flagpole. We don't have the luxury of waiting for an engineer to amble by and show us what we are doing wrong. It is our job to be the engineers and to develop the necessary systems that will help us assess whether or not our objectives are being met.

The Kyoto Protocol: A Realistic Assessment
So now that we have talked about participation, compliance and measurability, the next question is this: how does the Kyoto Protocol stand up to these relatively simple criteria? Let's start with participation and compliance. On the test of insuring global buy-in and participation by setting reasonable and achievable objectives, the Protocol unfortunately falls short.

The goals for the United States are a case in point. With all due respect to my former colleagues in the current Administration who negotiated the agreement, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. will be able to meet its Kyoto target of reducing emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels between 2008-2012. It doesn't take an engineer to see that a 7-percent reduction is overly ambitious in a country where emissions already have grown to more than 11 percent above 1990 levels and are likely to continue to rise.

Adding to the challenge of meeting the target, there has been little to no effort on the part of government leaders in the U.S. to encourage a national dialogue on how we go about reducing our emissions when we finally come around to understanding and accepting that we must. Indeed, it is rare both in Washington and in the current presidential campaign for the discussion of this issue to get past the question of whether to support the Kyoto Protocol or whether to declare it dead. What the discussion has not touched on—and should—is the further development and implementation of programs that would change the expected trajectory of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Many in the U.S. Congress, for example, appear determined to let little if anything happen that would even remotely suggest that the United States is concerned about this issue. Virtually every budget item and every piece of legislation that so much as mentions the possibility of climate change, let alone our responsibility to address it, is viewed by many in Congress as a quote-unquote "backdoor" attempt to implement the Kyoto Protocol and is therefore voted down or pushed aside.

Yet another factor in the inability of the U.S. to meet the Kyoto targets is the thorny issue of administrative process. Even if we saw a profound shift in Washington on the topic of climate change in the next one or two years (and I am not optimistic that this can happen), the United States would not be able to achieve the Kyoto targets as they are currently drawn for a very simple reason: administrative process in our country is enormously time-consuming.

For the Kyoto Protocol to become U.S. law, the President would have to submit it to the Senate; the Senate would have to grant its advice and consent; both Houses of Congress would have to pass implementing legislation that would then have to be signed by the President; and a designated agency would have to draft rules and regulations that would have to go through formal notice and comment procedures before they could be finalized and then put in place. Given that such legislation and regulation would clearly result in regional and sectoral economic impacts, the odds of all this activity occurring in enough time to enable the U.S. to meet the Kyoto target are very small indeed.

Lest you think my doubts about achieving the Kyoto targets are reserved exclusively for my own country, I firmly believe that the United States will not be alone in its inability to move fast enough to meet the targets. Surely, there is much effort on this issue here in Europe and elsewhere. And those that are taking seriously the challenge of reducing their countries' emissions should be applauded.

But with all due respect to the many officials with whom I negotiated global environmental agreements in my government past (you will note that I am being unusually respectful in this speech), it is clear that few national governments will be able to stand up in 2008, 2010 or 2012 and say that their targets have been met. In some countries, as in the U.S., it may be a lack of will or a lack of effort that leaves the targets unachieved. While in others, it may be the simple fact that these are very tough targets indeed. In fact, in a report that the Pew Center will be releasing tomorrow on the efforts of five European governments to meet their targets, only one government, that of the United Kingdom, is definitely on track to fulfill its obligation, and only one other, Germany, is in a position in which it "might" meet its target.

Once again, I will say that there is nothing wrong with ambitious targets, but they do have to be grounded in reality. And the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear that the targets in the Kyoto Protocol cannot and will not be met on the established timetable in the United States and elsewhere suggests to me that the Protocol has overreached. And, in overreaching, it runs the enormous risk of undermining the support it needs to encourage a truly global and effective response to the climate change problem.

Overreaching has other problematic effects as well. By adhering to unrealistic targets that will be very difficult, if not impossible, to meet, we provide the Protocol's opponents (and there are many of them) with additional ammunition in their effort to shoot the treaty down. We all know that the economic arguments that have been used in the United States to reduce support for the Protocol are based on the costs of complying with the Kyoto target and timetable. The more unrealistic the target is—considering the short timetable for action—the more costly it will be to meet it. And the more ammunition the treaty's opponents will have in order to work against it.

I am not saying this to endorse or to lend credibility to the often-dire predictions of those who argue against U.S. ratification of the Protocol on economic grounds. Many of the assumptions in the economic models that are used to develop the cost estimates are unrealistic (they are unable to anticipate technological progress; they model the old economy rather than the more flexible "new economy"), and the results they yield cannot entirely be trusted. I remember reading somewhere that partisan analysts use economic data the way a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination. And surely this is the case with many published economic analyses on the Kyoto Protocol.

The potential economic costs of complying with the Kyoto Protocol form the basis of one of the two major arguments against the treaty in the United States. The other main stumbling block, as you all know, revolves around the issue of developing country commitments. I call this the "fairness issue." Is it fair, people ask, for the United States to have to abide by the Kyoto targets while competitors such as China, India and Brazil get a quote-unquote "free ride?"

My answer is that fairness demands a decisive U.S. response for three reasons. First, because the United States is responsible, both historically and currently, for more emissions than anyone else. Second, because the United States has the ability to pay to reduce its emissions, while many other countries plainly do not. And finally, because we have significant opportunities for emission reductions that are achievable at a relatively low cost.

As you might suspect, these answers are not enough to turn Kyoto's critics in the U.S. into adoring fans of the treaty—although it is always worth trying. And, once again, I wonder if it is the treaty's targets and timetable that are the real issue here—if the sheer impracticality of meeting the targets according to the Kyoto schedule, together with the potential costs involved, are fueling U.S. resentment of the fact that there are no targets for the developing world.

The importance of realistic targets and timetables in an accord such as Kyoto cannot be overestimated. But they aren't the only problem. Earlier, I mentioned the issue of measurability, and I believe the Kyoto Protocol falls short in this area as well.

Let's put aside for a moment the issue of how to determine whether and when different countries are in compliance with the accord. This is what we commonly think of as measurability, and it is a major topic in and of itself. But what I want to talk about today is the fact that the Protocol is not clear on exactly what we should measure—or what counts toward the targets. And, in the absence of an understanding of what counts, I believe it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to know whether the targets we are setting are realistic or not.

Consider the issue of carbon sequestration. The Kyoto Protocol includes land use changes and forestry among the allowable practices that can help to promote sequestration, but it does so unevenly. Sometimes the treaty awards credits towards national commitments for increasing carbon stored through forest and land management, and sometimes it does not. Sometimes it charges decreases in carbon stocks as a result of deforestation against national commitments, and sometimes it does not. And sometimes it is simply unclear what is included and what is not.

One result is that different countries have interpreted the language in the treaty differently, and this has affected their assessments of whether and how they will be able to reach their targets. A second result is that the system creates perverse incentives. For example, in counting afforestation, deforestation and reforestation, it provides an incentive for cutting and replanting, rather than conservation and preservation. But both results are obviously unacceptable, and they need to be remedied.

Also wrapped up in the issue of "what counts" is the important question of what the word "supplemental" means in defining how much of a country's emission budget can be fulfilled by activities outside of its border; and the role of what is called "hot air." And this lack of clarity provides an incentive to tinker with the mechanisms and definitions so that the targets can be met.

Ideally, these issues would have been decided (at least at some level) before the negotiation of specific targets so that a common understanding could be reached. But, as it is, we are debating these issues after the fact—and countries still have very little to go on in terms of planning exactly how and when they can achieve their targets. And so this is yet another area where the Protocol could have done—and must do—a better job.

Still a Keeper

But the question remains: is the Kyoto Protocol fatally flawed? And, despite the obvious problems I have identified in my remarks, I say the answer is no. Appropriately enough, considering our venue here in the land of Shakespeare, the term "fatal flaw" derives from the bard's tragedies, whose heroes often had many good qualities but one aspect of their character—be it excessive pride or an inability to act decisively—that led to their eventual downfall. Certainly, the Kyoto Protocol has its flaws, as I have stated. But none of them—I believe—should lead to its downfall.

Moreover, the good qualities of the Kyoto Protocol vastly outweigh its flaws. Chief among these good qualities is that it provides a viable and rational framework for global action to mitigate climate change. How does it do this? It establishes multi-year budget periods to accommodate sudden shifts in the economy or even the weather. It sets binding targets so there is a better chance of achieving compliance. It allows countries to reduce emissions in cost-effective ways that can actually contribute to economic development and growth—thanks to such provisions as emissions trading, the Clean Development Mechanism and Joint Implementation. It aims to keep carbon emissions from ever reaching the atmosphere by promoting carbon sequestration. And it includes all greenhouse gases, permitting a more comprehensive and cost-effective response to the problem.

All of these are important achievements. What is even more important as we look ahead to COP VI this fall, however, is that we correct the flaws in the Kyoto framework so that it can stand the test of time. This means putting the issue of targets and timetables aside while we configure the framework in such a way that it makes sense. The question we should be asking is not how to structure the Protocol in such a way that we will be able to achieve the targets we have already set. That gets it backwards. Rather, we should be asking how we could structure the Protocol so that it provides the basis for a sustained and successful effort to mitigate global climate change. That should be our goal.

In the end, the Kyoto framework will make sense to the extent that it defines exactly what counts toward any targets we set. It will make sense to the extent that it is business friendly--because business will make the investments, develop the technologies and make many of the reductions that are needed to solve the problems we face. It will make sense to the extent that it allows for short-term and long-term activities that achieve measurable results. And it will make sense to the extent that it handles such issues as sequestration and hot air in ways that contribute to the overall goal of reducing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

If, after insuring that the framework reflects these priorities, we need to renegotiate the targets or the timetables—and I suspect we will--then so be it. Right now, as I said, it is the framework that we must pay close attention to because it will be with us for as long as we are working to address this issue. The initial targets, by contrast, will mark but a moment in time. Twenty years from now, it will matter very little where or when we set them—only that they provided a starting point in the global effort to achieve measurable progress against a problem that will in all likelihood be with us for generations to come.

The Kyoto Protocol, I will repeat, may not be fatally flawed, but it can certainly be improved upon. And, having come this far with the Protocol, we have a responsibility to future generations to go even farther. We have a responsibility to make it better—the best we can do.

Thank you very much. I welcome your questions.