Saturday, February 12, 2011

Is Anyone Serious about Climate Policy?

For the past couple of years, I've been working, albeit slowly and haltingly, on a book about the overuse and abuse of emissions trading and offset programs in the international climate regime. Even my research for that book, however, has not made me as skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol's "flexibility mechanisms," as I have become while teaching them this semester as part of my new Climate Law and Policy course. I find it  increasingly difficult to believe that anyone involved in the Kyoto process could possibly have believed, at any time, that it would lead to actual, measurable reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions.

That is not to say either that no one is taking climate change seriously, or that the Kyoto Protocol was worse (or as bad) as doing nothing. I'm confident that climate scientists are taking problem seriously, and so too are the denizens of low-lying Pacific Island nations. To a lesser extent, I'm convinced that the bureaucrats of the European Commission (but not European politicians or those of most EU member states) are, at least relatively speaking, pretty serious about climate policy. Meanwhile, I suppose even the existing regime is marginally better than nothing; at least it has kept the international community grappling, however weakly and non-seriously, with the problem.

What would a more serious international climate policy look like? My (admittedly somewhat idiosyncratic) view is that a serious climate change mitigation policy would:

  • involve only the major emitting countries, as President Bush suggested, including India and China (though not necessarily with a view to persuading those two countries immediately to accept binding emission reduction targets), to minimize rent-seeking and other impediments to collective action; 
  • reject comprehensive coverage of all greenhouse gases from all sources in favor, at least initially, of a more limited focus on carbon dioxide emissions from major industrial sources to minimize administrative (monitoring and enforcement) costs;
  • restrict the use of emissions trading and offsets to combinations of greenhouse gases and sources with low costs of establishing baselines, monitoring emissions, and verifying reductions;
  • exclude from consideration claimed reductions from inherently unverifiable counterfactual emissions. 
An international regime that followed these general principles would probably come to resemble, at least in broad outline, the EU Emissions Trading System (excepting its links to the Kyoto flexibility mechanisms), which I believe does, in fact, represent a more sensible and serious approach to mitigating climate change.

Will we ever get a more serious climate regime? As the costs of climate change rise over the next 20-50 years, I expect the international climate regime will become more serious. I do not, however, expect it to change significantly in the near future - it's not even clear at this point whether the parties will agree to extend the Kyoto Protocol, let alone improve on it in any significant way, before the end of the first compliance period at the end of next year. I certainly do not expect the parties to limit, let alone eliminate, abuse-riddled trading regimes like Joint Implementation and the Clean Development Mechanism. Unfortunately, the forces of path dependency - too many parties with vested interests - are probably too strong to permit anything that sensible to happen. 

Of course, before we can expect the international community to grapple seriously with the problem of climate change, the international community has a right to expect major emitting countries, including the United States, to at least acknowledge, consistently and unambiguously, that climate change is a serious problem. I see no reason to expect any such acknowledgement before the 2012 presidential election at the earliest. 

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