I have been following with great interest the news out of Bali, where the thousands of delegates to the 13th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have been meeting. Unlike the session in Kyoto ten years ago, the meeting in Bali is not intended to deliver a new climate treaty, but rather the guidelines for another couple of years of negotiations on an agreement to pick up where the Kyoto Protocol leaves off at the end of 2012. As such, the concluding statement out of Bali on Friday may not be terribly dramatic, unless the next couple of days produce a breakthrough on the issue of binding emission reduction targets. Although I disagree with its authors' interpretation of the data, a Wall Street Journal op-ed critical of the whole process asks the right question about the Bali outcome, in terms of how it will relate to an objective assessment of the success or failure of Kyoto.
The authors suggest that if Bali produces a framework that is little more than a bigger version of Kyoto, it will fail. They base this conclusion on their assessment that most of the countries that agreed to reduce emissions have fallen short of their commitments, at least at this point, and that where reductions have occurred, they resulted mainly from factors unrelated to the Kyoto targets and their implementation mechanisms, such as emissions trading and the Clean Development Mechanism. There's more than a grain of truth to this, but I believe reality is more complicated, and that Kyoto has not been an unmitigated failure. At a minimum, it has served as a global focal point on climate change, and the template on which national emissions reduction efforts--and of states such as California--have been based. Absent Kyoto, it's hard to imagine the same impetus for action.
As to the performance against Kyoto's targets, it is not as bad as often portrayed. However they get there, the EU has a reasonable chance of achieving its target of 2012 emissions that are 8% below what its member countries emitted in 1990. By the end of 2005 its emissions were already 1.5% lower than 1990 for the core 15 nations that signed Kyoto, and almost certainly lower than they would have been, had they not undertaken any of these measures--though one might argue about whether the process has been as efficient or the cost/ton of the cuts as low as possible. Even in the US, which did not ratify Kyoto and has so far avoided a firm commitment on reductions, our 16% growth of emissions since 1990 (14.5% taking the 2006 result into account) is well below the status quo projections I saw in the late '90s, which anticipated emissions growing by around 30%.
The Achilles heel of Kyoto, as most skeptics are quick to point out, is its treatment of the large developing countries. The growth of emissions in China alone, in just the last five years, has been larger than all the cuts that Kyoto asked of the EU and US combined. Nor is there any reason to expect that China's rate of emissions growth is about to turn negative, any time soon. Simply increasing the severity of cuts required of the Kyoto-compliant developed countries and adding the US and Australia to that list seem unlikely to attain the underlying goals that are being discussed in Bali, of ensuring that total global greenhouse gas emissions begin falling within 10-15 years, and that the rise in average temperature does not exceed 2 degrees Celsius.
If a bigger version of Kyoto is insufficient to the task, then what do we need? There are plenty of opinions out there, but I will be encouraged if the 12 days in Bali end with a charge to the negotiators of the details that is flexible enough to allow them to address the widely disparate political and economic circumstances of the world's nations, and particularly of the largest emitters. The key success criterion ought not to be its fit with our preconceptions about the relative importance of emissions cuts, technology transfer, and other key elements, but whether it results in a framework that can be implemented and enforced across all the big emitters, offering a realistic expectation of actually working, not just satisfying our notions of equity.