The Future of International Climate Agreements


The Future of International Climate Agreements


The Kyoto Protocol has failed. The stated objective of the Protocol is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system,” yet worldwide emissions increased by almost 40% from 1990-2009.[1] Although the commitment period does not end until next year, it is obvious that most countries will not meet their commitments. The numerous reasons why the Kyoto Protocol did not succeed are complicated, making it difficult to reconcile disagreements; however, it is paramount that these issues be resolved for future international agreements on climate change to succeed.

The Kyoto Protocol is part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) which was adopted on December 11, 1997 in Kyoto, Japan and went into effect on February 16, 2005. The agreement requires developed countries (the 37 Annex 1 countries) to reduce their GHGs (greenhouse gases) from 1990 levels by an average of 5.2% during the period of 2008-2012. To date 193 parties have ratified the agreement (a major success) with only one industrial nation not rarifying, the United States (a major failure). Although widely accepted, the Protocol has major weakness. 

The weaknesses of the Kyoto Protocol are both architectural and political. Although an international environmental agreement was successfully implemented before, this is a fairly new proposal with more than its fair share of complications.[i] In international climate agreements three major issues continue to arise:  which countries should reduce their GHG emissions, what strategy is best in reducing these emissions, and how much these emissions should be reduced.

However, the issue that continues to plague the Climate War is the United States-China debate. The United States does not want to be at an economic competitive disadvantage to other countries (specifically China) that do not have emissions regulations. China, on the other hand, does not want to impede its industrialization or its rapidly growing economy.[2] Furthermore, it seems unreasonable to China and other developing countries not to be able to follow the developed countries’ tried and tested model of using cheap (and dirty) coal to industrialize; especially considering developing countries’ smaller per capita emissions rate and the fact they they are not largely responsible for the current GHG levels.[3] Ultimately, the reason the United States did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol is because it did not want any obligations to reduce GHG emissions unless developing countries had the same commitments.[ii][4]

The failures of Kyoto are clearer when considering Uderal’s Law of the Least Ambitious Program (LLAP). LLAP states that “the effectiveness of an international agreement is limited by the commitment level of the agreement’s least interested party.”[5] The least ambitious party in the Kyoto Protocol is obviously the only country that is not a signatory, the United States. For future climate negotiations to work the United States has to be persuaded that GHG reductions are in its best interest and won’t be excessively costly, which is the concern of every state.

The discussion of climate negotiations is, ultimately, a discussion of economics and must be addressed that way—any other attempt will fail (as we have seen). The belief that is currently dominating this debate is that converting to clean energy will be expensive (a lot of ink has been spilt by trying to calculate how much). However, if you look at those nations that are leading the clean energy transition it is obvious that that is not necessarily the case. Denmark’s economy, for example, has risen by almost 80% since 1980 without significantly increasing energy consumption. Furthermore, this progressive country has reduced its emissions by 21% for the 2008-2012 period compared with 1990 levels.[6] Renewable energy is so profitable that it accounts for 19% of the total energy consumption.[7] A considerable part of Denmark’s successful economy is due to renewable technology and one of Denmark’s leading exports is wind turbines, of which it posses one-third of the world market.

However, the economics of global warming are complicated with market failures and systems without feedback mechanisms plaguing it. A market failure occurs when the cost of some factor is not paid by the person involved in the transaction. Harmful emissions are a market failure because the party creating and/or purchasing the GHGs are not necessarily the party that pays for the adverse effects of climate change.  Methods to address the externality of climate change will be discussed later.

Basically, if the climate problem is rooted in fossil fuels and it’s complicated with economics than the answer must be technology.[iii] The climate war will be won, as any war, with technology. However, coal subsidies are a serious impediment to the technology race that should be ongoing (and another example of market failure). For renewable energy to become affordable and widespread, then the technology will have to quickly advance. This cannot occur as long as coal continues to remain artificially cheap. Future climate negotiations must remove coal subsides, and promptly.

              Coal is not that easy to get rid of, however. Because coal is the cheapest and most widespread energy source used in most of the world it will not disappear anytime soon.  The United States gets about 46% of its electricity from coal and the number for China is much higher, about 70%.[8]  If coal’s going to be around for a while, then it needs to be cleaned up. That means heavy investment in carbon capture and sequestration (CCS or carbon capture and storage). However, this has never been done in the United States on a large scale and once again the issue is technology.[iv][9] Due to the widespread nature of current coal energy sources climate talks must clean up this problem.

Future climate agreements will also need to address the overly ignored state of developing countries. These protocols will have to address not only emissions but also technology sharing, deforestation, refugees, and other climate impacts. China and India are usually in the spotlight but as other developing countries continue to increase their emissions they must also be called to reduce them. Combined Non-Annex 1 countries made up 31% of GHG emissions in 1990. In 2006 they made up 48% and by 2025 they will account for 58%; this will increase their emissions by 158%, compared to an increase of only 4% by Annex 1 countries.[10] It would be cleaner and more cost efficient for these countries to develop with clean energy, rather than making a costly transition later. For this to be possible extensive technology sharing and clean development mechanisms need to be implemented. Furthermore, the impact of future climate problems will affect developing or underdeveloped countries the most. This should be an incentive for these countries to do their part, but relief mechanisms will need to be included in climate agreements.

Although economics seem to be the focus of climate crisis there are still a lot of low hanging fruit that would be comparatively cheap to address. The most economical way to reduce GHG is by “designing buildings and transportations systems to waste less energy from the start”, yet business as usual continues to consume even these sectors.[11] Energy efficient buildings remain the most cost effective method to reduce GHGs due to the fact that a building can last over a 100 years and use a significant amount of energy during its lifetime. The best policy to reduce GHGs is to increase efficiency standards on new buildings and to provide subsidies on existing buildings.

One of the best ways to persuade countries to reduce their emissions and reduce the cost of doing so is my allowing for flexible mechanisms.  A continued debate about emissions trading, joint implementation, and clean development mechanisms is needed for any serious climate discussion. The best emissions trading system is a cap and trade system with a declining tap; a climate tax would not necessarily reduce GHG emissions. Also, clean development mechanisms may be cheaper than other projects with similar results. A main focus of these projects needs focus on preventing deforestation. Stopping and reversing this trend will drastically improve the climate outcome in the near future.

While the Kyoto Protocol was largely unsuccessful it did lay a lot of foundation for future climate conferences. Although unsuccessful, even the limited goals of the Protocol fall far short of what is needed to evade the worst consequences of the climate dilemma. It’s been estimated that the world must reduce global emissions by 70%. To put it another way, “’the whole world on average would need to get down to the Kenya level’ – a 96 percent reduction for the United States.” It sounds like we need to get started.[12]


[i] The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer was ratified by 193 nations and has successfully limited the use of harmful ozone depleting substances. The ozone layer is predicted to make a full recovery by 2050.  However, there were other substances that made the replacement of CFCs a fairly easy and inexpensive transition—the global warming issue will not be as easily solved.

[ii] The Byrd-Hagel Resolution was a unanimously passed Senate Resolution that limited the United States to signing the Kyoto Protocol or subsequent protocols unless developing nations had similar GHG limits. Additionally, the United Sates could not be a signatory for any agreement that “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.”

[iii] According to the National Academy of Sciences, the largest source of GHG emissions is from the burning of fossil fuel and it’s increasing by two parts per million every year.

[iv] The problem is also economical but China has built many CCS plants; they have greatly advanced their technology and greatly reduced the cost of such programs. The United States has not.

[1] Robert Henson, “What is the Kyoto protocol and has it made any difference? The impact of this agreement between nations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be modest” (11 March 2011)

[2] Kelly Sims Gallagher, “Breaking the Climate Impasse with China: A Global Solution”

[3] Ibid.

[5] David Victor, 2006. “Toward Effective International Cooperation on Climate

Change: Numbers, Interests and Institutions,” Global Environmental Politics, (6.3)

August, p. 1.

[7] Ibid.

[8] James Fallows, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” Atlantic Monthly, December (2010).

[9] Ibid.

[10] “CO2 Emissions for Annex I and Non-Annex I Countries: 1990, 2006, and Projected to 2025”

[11] Fallows

[12] Ibid.

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