The Big Question: Is the Kyoto treaty an outdated failure based on the wrong premises?

A A A

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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm it was a 'minor disturbance' and no-one was arrested

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf plays a World War II soldier in forthcoming drama Fury
films

Eccentric Fury star, 28, reveals he is 'not a really confident actor'

Life and Style
Time and Oak have developed a product that allows drinkers to customise the flavour and improve the quality of cheaper whiskey
food + drink

Sport
football

Peter Biaksangzuala died from his injuries in hospital on Sunday

Life and Style
The final 12 acts will be facing Simon Cowell, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Mel B and Louis Walsh tonight
fashion

The X Factor's judges colourful outfit was mocked by Simon Cowell

News
news

Footage shot by a passerby shows moment an ill man was carried out of his burning home

News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Senior Change Engineer (Windows, Linux, VMWare) - London £35k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past