The Paris Summit on Climate Change: Another Kyoto?

The climate summit underway in Paris will almost certainly not be an occasion to take stock of what’s been wrong with policymakers’ approach to rising temperatures in the past few decades. What a pity. If this were all it did, its contribution would be far more useful than the unrealistic goals, ideological sophistry, and political posturing likely to fuel the final conference report.

What should the fiasco of the Kyoto Protocol have taught our leaders? If anything, it should have taught them that, in public policy, the means by which one tries to achieve a goal are at least as important as the goal itself, and that pursuing an objective with ideological obsession, without understanding the consequences of the means employed, can cause much harm.

Signed in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels within a decade and a half. To achieve this, it placed binding caps on emissions in industrialized countries. The deadline passed, and Kyoto is now synonymous with utter failure. What conclusion did the major players extract? Basically, the idea that its fatal flaw was the international imposition of caps, something that could be easily remedied by having each country impose a reduction in emissions on itself. Thus, the United States decided to cut emissions about 27 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and the European Union set for itself the aim of cutting them 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. And so on.

They should have been paying attention to the real problem. One statistic says it all: coal, the dirtiest of the dirty energy sources, is now responsible for 40 percent of the world’s electricity and about 30 percent of its energy overall, the highest level in decades—a testament to the failure of the politically favored alternatives.

By setting arbitrary goals for themselves, the leading countries went on to pick whatever means were deemed necessary. A major effort was made, for instance, to spread the use of wind turbines and solar panels. This effort proved extremely expensive and achieved almost nothing. Less than half of one percent of our energy comes from solar and wind sources today. According to the International Energy Agency, another $2.5 trillion in subsidies will be needed over the next 25 years to keep up with political promises. What would that achieve? By 2100 the temperature rise would be a mere 0.03 degrees Fahrenheit less than without the subsidies.

Not to mention other sources dear to politicians, especially biofuels (which comprise about three-quarters of renewable sources today). Pursuing them has worsened the pressure on scarce water resources, caused more pollution through the expanded use of fertilizers, led to greater deforestation in several counties and, of course, made food a lot more expensive. Several times in the past few years these consequences even triggered violent riots in Asia.

The realization that the emission goals were unrealistic, and that the means adopted to achieve them were useless or even counterproductive, has led long-time supporters of these policies to admit that, in the words of The Economist, “global warming cannot be dealt with using today’s tools and mindsets.”

We need to conduct a lot more research, use market mechanisms to bring about innovative technology, have a much clearer understanding of the economic trade-offs related to the various options available and, above all, approach the subject with humility. Bombastic goals and pernicious means have not led us anywhere since Kyoto. Paris looks likely to prolong the tradition.

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