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Problems with the Protocol

November-December 2002

The Kyoto protocol is to date the only international agreement that calls for action to reduce emissions of CO2. Yet the Harvard scientists and economists who study climate change express almost universal criticism of the accord, which they fault as economically inefficient, unobjective, inequitable, and—worst of all—ineffective. And they point out that the protocol fails to include the largest future sources of CO2 emissions. China, for example, will pass the U.S. in annual emissions of CO2 by 2013, according to Boas professor of international economics Richard N. Cooper. Another projection suggests that, by 2050, China's cumulative contributions of CO2 to the atmosphere will exceed those of the United States.

The original agreement outlined in Kyoto committed individual countries to reduce their CO2 emissions to below-1990 levels. But the choice of 1990 immediately introduced inequities into the ensuing political process to determine who should cut how much, says Butler professor of environmental science Michael B. McElroy. That particular date "gave the Europeans a massive advantage relative to other countries," he says, because "reunification of Germany led to the elimination (for economic reasons) of a lot of dirty, polluting industry in what was formerly East Germany." Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the discovery of natural gas in the North Sea facilitated Margaret Thatcher's phase-out of the coal industry, which had been a major source of fuel." That meant the European Union could apportion emissions not needed by Britain and Germany to big polluters (awarding large net increases in some cases), thereby obtaining flexibility that no individual country had. The United States, of course, had in the meantime experienced unprecedented economic growth.

By selecting a timescale that was almost immediate—a completion date of 2008—the Kyoto Protocol mandated economically inefficient measures to achieve its targets. "The economic lifetime of a power plant is maybe 30 years," says McElroy, "and the average automobile in the U.S. is on the road for 11 and a half or 12 years. If you try to change the energy economy too quickly, you are going to have to retire equipment that is still economically productive."

The protocol's target completion dates also effectively precluded the participation of developing countries that had experienced great economic growth, such as India and China. Cooper calls this a major flaw.

There are other problems with the agreement. Steven C. Wofsy, Rotch professor of atmospheric and environmental science, notes that it gives credit for planting forests to sequester carbon, but in a way that provides economic incentives to destroy wetlands, with concomitant releases of CO2 in excess of what a forest might sequester. Cooper says that the protocol doesn't address the true problem, which is not emissions per se, but atmospheric concentrations of CO2. The Kyoto Protocol doesn't even set a long-term goal for atmospheric concentrations of CO2, so there is no objective reason for either the overall reductions or the particular reductions by individual nations that it proposes.

"The Kyoto Protocol may come into force even without U.S. participation," says Pratt professor of business and government Robert N. Stavins, "but the effects on climate change will be virtually nonexistent." (He calculates 2 to 3 percent emission reductions by 2050, well within the margin of error—and trivial compared to carbon sequestration by the marine and terrestrial biosphere.) "The scientific and economic consensus," he says, "points to the need for a credible mitigation strategy."