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Prins and Rayner on Kyoto

October 29th, 2007

Not surprisingly, this Nature article by Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner entitled Time to ditch Kyoto, has attracted plenty of attention. I’m responding quickly and therefore somewhat brusquely. I’ll try to write something more considered a bit later.

Before giving a detailed response, let me observe that a reader with limited time need only look at the following few sentences

In September, the United States convened the top 16 polluters. Such initiatives are summarily dismissed by Kyoto’s true believers, who see them as diversions rather than necessary first steps. However, these approaches begin to recognize the reality that fewer than 20 countries are responsible for about 80% of the world’s emissions.

This argument is premised on the assumption that the Bush Administration, representing the world’s largest source of emissions (though China is catching up fast), sincerely wants to do something about climate change and called the September meeting with this purpose in mind. If anyone believes this, I have just become aware of a business opportunity from Nigeria in which they may be interested.

Unfortunately, the credulity with which Prins and Rayner accept Bush’s position is characteristic of their entire piece, which is little more than a recapitulation of the positions stated by the Bush Administration and (until it starting backing down a year or so ago) its Australian ally. The main claims are

(i) Kyoto has not delivered any reduction in emissions and further steps on the same lines are unlikely to do so
(ii) We need an agreement focusing on the top 20 emitters rather than a global process incorporating 170 nations
(iii) We need to pay more policy attention to adaptation and R&D and less to price incentives for mitigation

The first point is merely asserted. We don’t know what would have happened in the absence of Kyoto, nor what would have happened if the US had ratified and made a serious attempt to meet its target. Prins and Rayner don’t develop the point, and neither will I.

The second point is critical, since it’s the only part of the argument that’s even remotely novel, and the area in which the authors seem to have at least some expertise. The crucial para here is

The notion that emissions mitigation is a global commons problem, requiring consensus among more than 170 countries, lies at the heart of the Kyoto approach. Engaging all of the world’s governments has the ring of idealistic symmetry (matching global threat with universal response), but the more parties there are to any negotiation, the lower the common denominator for agreement — as has been the case under Kyoto.

The central claim then, is that the problems observed with Kyoto are the result of the need to get consensus not merely of the 20 nations that count but of 150 or so that do not. But this picture bears no resemblance to the actual problem. The difficulties in reaching an effective agreement have been almost entirely due to the incompatible positions of major emitters including the EU (largely backed by Japan), the US and Australia, and the major developing countries, China and India. Restricting negotiations to a group of 20, or even 10, would not change this.

In particular, the most determined opponents of any effective action have been the Bush Administration in the US and its supporters in the Howard government (at least until its very recent capitulation). While their rhetoric almost exactly matches that of Prins and Rayner, their actions clearly indicate a desire for inaction. In particular, while the stated US position is that it is only willing to act if China and India also reduce emissions, US negotiators have actively encouraged their counterparts from China and India to hold resolutely to the opposite view, refusing any definite commitments. The resulting standoff is not a consequence of trying to reach consensus among 170 parties, but the outcome actively pursued by the US.

Turning to the final point made by Prins and Rayner, it is notable both for the extent to which it mirrors the rhetoric of those who have consistently opposed any effective action, and for its failure to take account of basic economic principles of policy analysis. As regards rhetoric,
The idea that, in the formulation of a global response to climate change, equal policy effort should be allocated to mitigating climate change and to adaptation to its consequences sounds plausible, but does not stand up to scrutiny. Emissions of greenhouse gases represent a market failure, since no private party has any incentive to reduce their own emissions. Hence, mitigation requires a policy response to ensure that this externality is taken into account.

By contrast, private parties, in deciding how to adapt to climate change, will, in the absence of policy intervention, bear the costs and receive the benefits of their decisions in most cases. There is no particular reason to expect too much or too little adaptation. Of course, there is a role for governments in the provision of information, and in large-scale adaptation decisions regarding infrastructure, urban planning and so on, but even here, there is in most cases no need for any co-ordinated international action.

A similar point may be made with respect to technology. As in other areas, there is a role for governments in undertaking fundamental public good research. But for most of the R&D required for an effective response to climate change, the crucial requirement is a price incentive to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Given this incentive, firms will have a natural incentive to develop innovative low-cost solutions.
Coming back to the policy debate, it is striking that, had the Australian government sought to defend its policy position as of early 2006, it could hardly have done better than to commission Prins and Rayner to write their Nature piece. That position has collapsed in the light of public and academic scrutiny, and the arguments of Prins and Rayner will do likewise.

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  1. observa
    October 29th, 2007 at 21:07 | #1

    “Kyoto has failed in several ways, not just in its lack of success in slowing global warming, but also because it has stifled discussion of alternative policy approaches that could both combat climate change and adapt to its unavoidable consequences. As Kyoto became a litmus test of political correctness, those who were concerned about climate change, but sceptical of the top-down approach adopted by the protocol were sternly admonished that “Kyoto is the only game in town”. We are anxious that the same mistake is not repeated in the current round of negotiations.

    Already, in the post-Kyoto discussions, we are witnessing that well-documented human response to failure, especially where political or emotional capital is involved, which is to insist on more of what is not working: in this case more stringent targets and timetables, involving more countries.”

    Well if at first cap and trade doesn’t work, I suppose there’s that well worn remedy. The Surge!

  2. Hermit
    October 29th, 2007 at 21:10 | #2

    Opinion polls consistently show that the public wants action taken on climate. Moreover they don’t seem to buy the Coalition’s ‘on track anyway’ line. On the other hand they probably don’t want higher electricity prices which seem certain under either the next Kyoto round or Rudd’s 60% emission cuts promise. However that pain might be tempered by a belief it is part of a systematic approach.

    The question is how much pain is bearable since I think Stern’s modest growth penalty (was it 1%?)is far too low. But I also think Stern’s social costs estimate was too low, given that oil prices have since made it clear we need to quickly find alternatives to carbon energy. I think China and the US will get on board when it all starts to unravel..today California wildfires, next year smoggy Olympics followed perhaps by a severe downturn in US demand for Chinese goods. A globalised Kyoto agreement will seem like a new start.

  3. observa
    October 29th, 2007 at 21:11 | #3

    Which of course wouldn’t have been necessary in Iraq if those spoilers, France and Germany had got on board right from the start, or something like that.

  4. observa
    October 29th, 2007 at 21:16 | #4

    It’s right about now you get the feeling life under Labor is gunna be like Groundhog Day with a new cast of characters.

  5. observa
    October 29th, 2007 at 21:29 | #5

    And for God’s sake Hermit don’t get the Lancet fired up again.

  6. al loomis
    October 30th, 2007 at 11:03 | #6

    1.you can’t omit countries from global warming policy,as sweatshop employment conditions would be supplemented by open slather industrial conditions.

    2. perhaps the chief contribution of kyoto was to get the world’s attention, and begin to create the sense of urgency needed to get anything done. this is worthwhile, as modifying the behavior of capitalist crocodiles is not an afternoon’s work.

    3. since resource exhaustion is going to force conversion to renewables sooner rather than later, and failure to convert quickly has some risk of catastrophic climate change, i can see no argument for going slowly.

    4. the functioning of parliamentary government is predicated on the principle that the right people are on top, hooray! it was never meant to be a vehicle for managing change. kevin uses the environment as a talking point, but his orientation is and must be ‘being pm’, not ‘doing things’.

  7. observa
  8. observa
    October 30th, 2007 at 11:53 | #8

    Picture more of Groundhog Day- A slightly thinning on top Kevin08, replete with plastic chicken, after the strategic withdrawal from Ira.. err, Gallipoli II, in order to support the wise European generals and bolster the Western Front, http://www.news.com.au/story/0,23599,22661191-23109,00.html
    stands with the troops in the graveyard of empires and promises to stay the course until it’s mission accomplished, in defence of Western civilisation.
    Meanwhile the Libs in opposition jump on board with the Curtinesque Coalition, calling for the troops to be brought home by Xmas, for the defense of the nation

    It’s almost enough to drive a bloke back to employing people again, even without Workchoices, although at the rate we’re going that won’t be an issue.

  9. Hermit
    October 30th, 2007 at 11:59 | #9

    Who’s ‘the Lancet’?. A.L.’s point #3 deserves more prominence; oil, gas and coal are all going to run out in that order, though for now Australia appears to have plenty of gas and coal. That’s why I’m disappointed in Rudd’s latest me-tooism on climate agreements. Also his anti-nuclear stance but that’s another matter.

    While nobody wants to spoil the mineral export boom, by the time today’s kids reach adulthood not only will the climate be harsher, but there will less high yielding energy sources. While Stern’s talk of discounting made eyes glaze over, we have to point out the the double whammy the next generation will face.

    I propose Australia include exports of coal and LNG in a diminishing domestic carbon cap so that customers have to tighten their carbon budgets as well. If that seems like an own goal then slap on a carbon tariff on goods imports..Sarkozy is saying this in France.

  10. geoff
    October 30th, 2007 at 12:39 | #10

    When I read the Prins & Rayner piece I had an instant feeling of being weary. I’m not completely sure but I’m thinking they maybe a couple more “useful idiots” for those that oppose real measures, along with Shellenberger & Nordhaus, and will only add to existing problems in the way of effective action.

    I’ve also noticed with some disappointment that no MSM outlets in the US, CAN AU, or the UK, that I usually read, have picked up the article in Scientific American by Cullenward and Victor which actually provided, I think, quite constructive observations about the existing Kyoto Protocol and suggestions for improving and making more effective the next stage. Likely because the piece was ostensible about how to make carbon markets work thus no snappy title dismissing Kyoto as, in effect, naive.

    [A link to the C & V piece: http://www.sciam.com/print_version.cfm?articleID=29896DAF-E7F2-99DF-3CB3CA01486CA951 ]

  11. John Bignucolo
    October 30th, 2007 at 13:14 | #11

    …That’s why I’m disappointed in Rudd’s latest me-tooism on climate agreements. Also his anti-nuclear stance but that’s another matter.

    While nobody wants to spoil the mineral export boom, by the time today’s kids reach adulthood not only will the climate be harsher, but there will less high yielding energy sources. While Stern’s talk of discounting made eyes glaze over, we have to point out the the double whammy the next generation will face.

    I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulty of the ALP’s and Kevin Rudd’s position. While the above concerns are absolutely valid, the ALP would be on a hiding to nothing in making the argument in this election campaign.

    The ALP and Coalition must be looking at similar qualitative and quantitative research and the issues they’re running on reflect their respective judgments of what they need to do to to connect with voters and achieve a plurality.

    What can Kevin Rudd do in the face of (a) a Coalition that refuses to accept the above premise , (b) a mainstream media led by New Limited (in particular The Australian and Herald-Sun) that strongly endorses the Coalition’s (skeptical/denialist/do nothing for as long as possible) position on global warming, (c) a media whose “he says/she says” journalistic conventions ensure that statements from the respective parties are given equal weight, and implicitly, equal validity.

    It takes a lot of time and effort for individuals to inform themselves, and if one assumes that people in public life don’t set out to lie (I know, it’s a big ask), who are people with limited time and domain expertise to believe when John Howard and Alexander Downer continually assert without any equivocation that “Kyoto = bad for Australia”, or point to the US Geologic Survey to say that Peak Oil isn’t real, and we have forty years before supply becomes a problem. And it hasn’t just been conservative politicians. Until very recently, the big business and the conservative commentariat have been espousing the same position.

    I believe that the points Paul Krugman made in his August 5, 2005 column Design for Confusion are as applicable to Australia as they are to the US.

    The most spectacular example is the campaign to discredit research on global warming. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, many people have the impression that the issue is still unresolved. This impression reflects the assiduous work of conservative think tanks, which produce and promote skeptical reports that look like peer-reviewed research, but aren’t. And behind it all lies lavish financing from the energy industry, especially ExxonMobil.

    There are several reasons why fake research is so effective. One is that nonscientists sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between research and advocacy – if it’s got numbers and charts in it, doesn’t that make it science?

    Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headlines of news articles would read, “Opinions Differ on Shape of the Earth.” The headlines on many articles about the intelligent design controversy come pretty close.

    Finally, the self-policing nature of science – scientific truth is determined by peer review, not public opinion – can be exploited by skilled purveyors of cultural resentment. Do virtually all biologists agree that Darwin was right? Well, that just shows that they’re elitists who think they’re smarter than the rest of us.

    Given the message being delivered to the electorate from the Coalition, I’m willing to cut Kevin Rudd a lot of slack.

    Why is it that the same degree of intellectual honesty, reality-based policy prescriptions, and the supremacy of reason over ideology, is never demanded of the Coalition that is demanded of the ALP? Last time I checked, it’s the Coalition that has been in power for 11.5 years.

  12. Andrew
    October 30th, 2007 at 14:18 | #12

    So John, what you’re saying is that the Coalition tell lies so they are a bunch of rotten scoundrels, the ALP want to get elected so they have to tell lies too – but that’s ok because you like the ALP and you know they are only lying to get elected.

  13. John Bignucolo
    October 30th, 2007 at 14:54 | #13


    In terms of global warming, yes I do think the Coalition are a bunch of rotten scoundrels. And to be fair, Martin Ferguson and a significant bloc of the extractive industry unions are in agreement with them.

    Are they telling lies? Is it a lie if you believe, in the fibre of your being, ‘A’. You disbelieve, a disbelief grounded in heartfelt ideology, the possibility of ‘not A’. Is it lying to say that only ‘A’ can be true? Or put another way, what happens when ideology completely trumps reality?

    And in terms of getting elected, it isn’t a case of telling lies, it’s about being economical with the truth during a period of hyper-scrutiny where nuance isn’t a viable position. Look at the fun the Republican’s had with John Kerry’s “I was for it before I was against it” Senate record.

    My response needs to be in the context of gerard’s disappointment that the ALP isn’t running on the issue of upcoming resource depletion for oil, gas and eventually coal.

    While probably true, the ALP would achieve no traction in the electorate for raising it, especially when such a position can be easily spun by the Coalition. I can see the headlines now: “ALP gives up on Australia”, “I’m an optimist, not a handwringing pansy – John Howard”, “ALP disses Australian Ingenuity – Peter Costello”, “Socialists Want You to Live in Grass Huts – Tony Abbott”.

    As to the left/right, ALP/Liberal dichotomy, I’ve gotten to an age where I’m completely over it. I just want good government, committed to equality of opportunity and democratic norms, open, accountable, transparent and reality-based.

    I live in NSW and the depredations visited on us by the goons in Sussex Street, acting as facilitators for whichever industry cabal is willing to pay for the requisite number of tables at ALP fundraising events, and screw the public interest, leaves me strongly disinclined to be an unthinking spruiker for all things ALP.

  14. Ian Gould
    October 30th, 2007 at 16:58 | #14

    “The central claim then, is that the problems observed with Kyoto are the result of the need to get consensus not merely of the 20 nations that count but of 150 or so that do not.”

    Of course this also ignores the inconvenient fact that 18 or 19 of those 20 (not sure if Australia makes the cut) are already Kyoto signatories.

    Now some of those signatories such as China and India are not signatories to Annex B of Kyoto but even so they are committed to R&D and various other measures of the type which the Bush leaguers have been pushing via their Asia-Pacific Partnership on Climate Change.

  15. Ian Gould
    October 30th, 2007 at 17:03 | #15

    “The resulting standoff is not a consequence of trying to reach consensus among 170 parties, but the outcome actively pursued by the US.”

    Hasn’t the US repeatedly gone to the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC specifically to veto any motions to even discuss post 2012 arrangements?

  16. Jill Rush
    October 30th, 2007 at 18:13 | #16

    It didn’t take very long for the Coalition to jump on this article to support their lack of action on climate changed over the last few years. Depressingly quickly in fact.

    It is amazing how often arguments need to be put again and again whilst the unbelievers declare the world is flat and can never be circumnavigated.

    Human activity created places such as the Sahara Desert – a hot hostile environment which is unlikely to ever support much life again. Similar human activities are occurring all over the globe today. The scientists can map the changes that are occurring. However the politicians aren’t looking at the jobs created to address the issue. Liberals, Nationals and Labor are still trying to save the jobs of the cobblers.

  17. observa
    October 30th, 2007 at 19:39 | #17

    You don’t understand Andrew, Howard lies but Rudd slys. There’s an atmosphere’s worth of difference in the two. If you’re a bit slow on the uptake, ask Peter Garrett to explain it all to you.

  18. Andrew
    October 30th, 2007 at 22:45 | #18

    I can never work out Garrett is saying…. neither apparantly can he or Rudd.

  19. observa
    October 30th, 2007 at 23:35 | #19

    “Who’s ‘the Lancet’?.”
    Its the top medical journal Hermit and it was an irony alert, since its medicos suddenly fancied themselves as experts on rubbery figures, re casualty estimates in Iraq. Presumably you also had some rubbery figures to address? That would be another long story…

  20. Peter Wood
    October 31st, 2007 at 22:02 | #20

    One of the criticisms that Prins and Rayner make of Kyoto is that it tries to introduce a market in greenhouse gas emissions from the top down. This is similar to McKibbin’s criticism of Kyoto. The article instead advocates developing markets from the bottom up – through linking regional experiments like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme and the voluntary Chicago Climate Exchange. This criticism makes the mistake that top-down and bottom-up approaches to climate change are mutually exclusive. In fact, Kyoto has facilitated rather than impeded local and regional approaches to climate change – the emissions reduction targets in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme for 2008-2012 have been chosen so that the EU complies with Kyoto Protocol.

    The problem of some Annex I countries not meeting their Kyoto targets is due to some big greenhouse gas polluters funding climate change denialism and successfully lobbying governments against effective action on climate change. Having Australia and the US refuse to ratify at the same time as having ridiculously high per-capita greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t help matters. Australia’s per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are so high that Rudd’s 60% reduction by 2050 target would mean that our emissions in 2050 will be about the same as the European Union’s per-capita emissions today.

    Whether Kyoto’s successor will be the right sort of treaty will depend on two things: Firstly and most importantly, that deep cuts are made in greenhouse gas emissions; secondly, that per-capita greenhouse gas emissions converge to a common low level.

  21. Kevin Cox
    November 2nd, 2007 at 15:20 | #21

    Kyoto is OK but it is probably unnecessary. The problem is not great and can solved within 10 years. Why do I make such an outrageous claim? I just looked at the numbers.

    A coal station costs $1000 per kw to construct.
    A coal station costs 2 to 4 cents per kwh to run.

    Large scale (gigawatt) geothermal station costs $3000 per kw to construct (this is continuous power)
    Large scale (gigawatt) solar thermal costs about the same and also runs 24 hours a day because we store the heat for the night.
    Both geothermal and solar cost about 1 cent per kwh to run

    If you do the numbers then a discount rate of 4% makes renewables competitive assuming that the power stations have a life of 20 years. This is surely afforable.

    How much do we need? For solar thermal about 50 kms by 50 kms to produce the 90,000 kwh per year times 20,000,000 population of Australia.

    Will it work? Well both these technologies use the same way to generate electricity as coal stations – just a different heat source so it is not rocket science.

    How much does come to on a per head basis. About $32,000 on present day prices and energy consumption. Spread over 10 years this is doable without hardly any impact on the economy. The 90,000 kwh is the average total energy consumed per person in Australia.

    What is the worry? Why don’t we just do it?

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