Monday, September 08, 2008

Is international climate policy a failure?

A recent post on the Nature blog Climate Feedback comparing the GHG emission reduction targets under various international policies with the recent changes in those emissions. The point includes the figure (right), which shows that international GHG emissions are diverging away from the long-term targets. Naturally this is leading others out in the online echo-chamber to imply that international policy has not worked or will not work (e.g. Prometheus).

No doubt, the world has failed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But this particular glass is half-empty because it has a few cracks.

First, the targets set at the 1988 Toronto Conference and the inaugural 1992 UNFCCC meeting were preliminary goals. At the time, reporting frameworks and institutional mechanisms were not in place. It is debatable whether the targets, especially the Toronto Conference target, belong on the graph.

Second, the other targets applied to only a subset of nations. Only developed countries accepted reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Now, of course, the increase in global emissions since 1990 (the open circles) is obviously the greatest concern to the climate. But if the goal of the figure is to illustrate the efficacy, or lack thereof, of international policy, it makes no sense to plot global emissions against emissions reduction targets for selected nations. Only the emissions reported by developed countries under the UNFCCC (the solid circles) should be compared to the Kyoto target, and the emissions of a subset of those countries should be compared to the EU target. A revised figure (right) gives a different impression.

Rather than use the emissions data to assert that setting reduction targets does not work, one might actually argue the exact opposite. The difference between dark and open circles suggests that emissions growth has occurred mostly only in countries did not set targets. In other words, it is possible, at least from the data, that the target setting made a difference.

There’s one more complication, too. As we all know, the United States, the largest emitter among the developed countries, failed to ratify the Kyoto agreement. Yet the U.S. emissions are included in the total for developed countries (the solid circles). Subtract out the U.S., where emissions have increased by ~16% since 1990, and the countries with targets would appear even closer to the Kyoto target.

This is a very simple analysis. I am not defending the Kyoto Protocol or any other international climate agreements. There are a myriad of problems with the pace of the international negotiations and with the progress on emissions reductions in Europe, in North America, in countries from the former Soviet Union and definitely in China, India and the rapidly industrializing countries. Regular readers know that this blog has been extremely critical of Canada’s lack of effort to meet the Kyoto target, of the U.S. failure to participate in emissions reductions, and of the achingly slow process of setting long-term emissions reduction targets based on scientific analysis of the dangerous impacts of climate change.

Nevertheless, it would simply be incorrect to conclude [from the mix of regional and global data on the original figure] that existing international policies have completely failed, or that a truly global policy, in an emissions target is set for the entire planet, will fail.


Dennis said...

No less a personage than James Gustave Speth, who has worked on environmental issues at the highest levels for decades has concluded in his new book, "The Bridge at the End of the World", that the majority of what we've tried hasn't worked and it is time for a very deep reevaluation of what's wrong and what needs to be done. At this point in his analysis, he's concluded that Capitalism, as most of the world practices it, is basically incompatible with establishing a workable steady-state balance with the biosphere. That's a pretty large step for a man that's spent his life working on these issues from within the system. But, he may well be right.

Simon Donner said...

He may be. And the critics of international emissions target setting may also be right; here I'm only showing that the data is inconclusive on that point.