The Big Question: Is the Kyoto treaty an outdated failure based on the wrong premises?

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Who suggests that?

Two UK-based academics, Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, have written a paper in the science journal Nature claiming that the Kyoto Protocol – the 1997 international pact which obliges industrial nations to cut greenhouse gases to 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012 – has produced no demonstrable reductions in emissions. Worse still, it has stifled discussion of alternative policy approaches and paid "no more than token attention" to "adaptation" – jargon for aid to the world's poor countries like Bangladesh who will be in the frontline of the flooding and other disasters produced by climate change.

Kyoto, they say, was always the wrong tool for the job. It was modelled on past treaties for tackling ozone depletion, acid rain and nuclear weapons. But climate change is based on a much more complex nexus of "mutually reinforcing, intertwined patterns of human behaviour" which percolates through the entire economy. All that cannot be changed by focusing on just one thing. Moreover, an agreement between 176 nations ignores the reality that 80 per cent of the problem is caused by just 20 countries.

So what do they suggest instead?

A vast increase in spending on research on clean energy alternatives. R&D budgets, which have been cut by 40 per cent since 1980 "should be placed on a wartime footing". Nations should spend as much on climate change solutions as on military research – that's $80bn (£40bn) a year for the United States. And much more money should go to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change. After that, the market will do the rest.

Is this all based on new science?

No. Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics and Steve Rayner of Oxford University are both social scientists. Their theory is not so much new science as old political ideology. It echoes the stance of climate change sceptics like George Bush and other Kyoto refuseniks like John Howard who long ago offered a similar analysis calling Kyoto "top-down, prescriptive, legalistic and Eurocentric". It comes out of the same stable as the free-market American Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations whom the authors approvingly quote anticipating a "global federalism" emerging from the rubble of the Kyoto Protocol. Some US right-wingers have even described Kyoto as a global socialist plot to transfer wealth to the Third World.

What did Kyoto set out to do, and has it achieved its aims?

It set out to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions at current levels, and set a framework for an agreement for radical cuts in future. It has only partly achieved them. Most countries are nowhere near reaching their Kyoto targets. In Europe, plans to set up a carbon-trading scheme foundered because governments didn't set a limit on the supply of carbon credits and then auction them; instead they allocated them in a politically compromised way.

But Kyoto helped put radical emissions cuts on the international political agenda. And it has not stifled discussion of alternatives. Its Clean Development mechanism, to allow rich nations to invest in clean technology in developing countries, has 500 projects in train which should reduce emissions by nearly 2 billion tonnes over the next five years. Some $1.5bn has been put into the UN Climate Change Adaptation Fund. Increasing these, along with the need for more funding for R&D, is on the agenda for Bali in December where the world's environment ministers will meet to launch negotiations on a successor to Kyoto.

From the outset, Kyoto was an interim measure. It was a radical departure from the previous model of inevitable exponential growth. It was always recognised that two further phases were needed, the second bringing drastic cuts in emissions and the third including far more countries. The insistence of the US and Australia on not ratifying Kyoto – and the failure of other nations to honour their commitments – is the problem.

"Just because many countries will not meet their targets doesn't mean Kyoto is a failure," says Ben McNeil of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. "Establishing a carbon emissions market, increasing public R&D into clean technologies, focussing on large emitters and adaptation funds are all consistent within the over-arching Kyoto framework."

Can the alternative succeed?

In part. Everyone agrees that hugely increased research on clean energy is essential. Al Gore called for it in 1992. American right-wing think-tanks have said the same thing. So, in the UK, did the Royal Society last year. The problem is that no one is willing to pay.

Focusing on big polluters is universally approved. In 2005, the Bush administration launched the Asia-Pacific climate agreement, bringing together the US, China, Australia and other big emitters in a pact to develop and exchange clean energy technologies. But the agreement doesn't seem to have produced anything.

And allowing the market to produce solutions – prodded by emissions-trading frameworks, better technology standards, investment in clean technologies and improved consumer labelling, as they suggest – will do too little and take too long. "Although a bottom-up approach may seem painfully slow and sprawling, it may be the only way to build credible institutions that markets endorse," say Prins and Rainer.

Others disagree. "They are completely out of touch with the timescale of emissions," says Dr Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University. "We don't have time to let this kind of market-based solution evolve. Later will be too late because the impact of these emissions is cumulative."

So what does the world need now?

In part what Prins and Rayner recommend: huge investment in clean energy research, far more money for poor countries' adaptation, improved bottom-up, market-driven strategies. But it also needs the top-down political decision-making which would be a bigger and better son-of-Kyoto.

Professor Barry Brook of the Climate Change and Sustainability Institute at the University of Adelaide warns of the danger in abandoning the Kyoto process. "The prospect of building an entirely new international agreement is, frankly, daunting, and raises the terrifying spectre of yet another decade of delay, diplomatic wrangling and nationalistic plea bargains for 'special cases'," he says. "All whilst the climate system races beyond catastrophic tipping points."

At the same time, says his colleague Professor Jim Falk, of the Australian Centre for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Melbourne, we would also be foolish to fail to innovate along the lines suggested by Prins and Rayner.

"Let's get on with both, and quickly," he says. The Bali conference, Professor Brook concludes, needs to be "Kyoto in a new business suit".

Has the Kyoto climate change protocol failed?

Yes...

* It hasn't reduced greenhouse gas emissions

* It has stifled more effective market-based solutions

* It is ignoring the problems of poor countries already in the front line of climate-change disasters

No...

* Greenhouse gases would have risen even further without it

* Market-based solutions would produce too little too late

* The problem is not the protocol, but the lack of political will to implement it

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