Canada Ditches Kyoto

It hit the news today that Canada is pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol. Of course, the pundits, environmentalists, and activists are all going to shout about how we’re all doomed because we’re doing nothing about climate change. But, really, the Kyoto Protocol was not doing anything anyway and is, in fact, fundamentally flawed.

I will leave aside the question of whether human activity has or can have any appreciable impact on the global climate. For the sake of this discussion, I will assume that through action or inaction we can, in fact, effect real change in the global climate.

Now, let’s examine what the Kyoto Protocol really does. Signatories commit to targets for total emissions of certain chemicals into the atmosphere. It is not entirely about carbon dioxide though that is a major component. Some signatories commit to reductions in emissions while others are granted room for growth.

Aside from the fact that measuring emissions is something that cannot be done accurately, there is also the problem of enforcement. How do you enforce something on a sovereign nation? Well, clearly you cannot unless you have sufficient support from other sovereign nations. Even then, if pressure does not work, you have to be willing to take punitive measures. The problem with such measures is that the ultimate end result of such measures is war. If the nation in question chooses to call the bluff, then the others must be willing to follow through. The problem with the follow-through is that it often hurts the enforcers as much or even more than the one being punished.

Even if enforcement is not an issue, the issue under Kyoto is how these targets can be met. Kyoto allows for trading “carbon credits”. Under this scheme, a nation who is not using all its emissions space can sell that unused space to a nation which needs headroom. While this seems like a good idea on paper, a few seconds thought should reveal the problems with it. In particular, it does nothing to actually reduce emissions! All it does is transfer wealth from one nation to another. The nation buying the credits has no incentive to put resources into reducing emissions and the nation selling the credits has no incentive to industrialize since doing so means that nation cannot sell as many credits.

Furthermore, under Kyoto, “developing” nations are largely exempted from emissions targets on the theory that they need to develop in order to reduce emissions or that the cost of emission reduction would be ruinous to their economic advancement. This is, of course, absurd. The same costs apply to the so-called developed nations and the developing nations are under no obligation to use the same high polluting technologies that the developed nations have deployed en masse. Indeed, it should be easier for the developing nations to move forward with cleaner technologies than it is for the developed nations because they have so much less infrastructure already in place.

Leaving aside the fairness of the developing/developed nation divide under the protocol (there are conflicting yet valid arguments), let us consider the inherent problem with the scheme. The whole point of the Kyoto Protocol is, ostensibly, to reduce emissions and it is supposedly needed because we are facing imminent ecological collapse. Yet allowing developing nations to continue increasing emissions can only hasten said collapse. Ecological realities do not care about fairness. Either emissions must be reduced or they need not be. One cannot have it both ways. The global climate affects everybody, after all. So if emission reduction is necessary but only some actors are required to take action while others are not, this will hardly accomplish the goal.

Let us consider one final point. The current state of various nation economies makes adherence to any expensive measure dangerous. Leaving aside issues arising from greed, consider what happens if the economy in a region collapses. Under such a situation, the population is struggling to simply survive. There are no spare resources to dedicate to even the most desirable moral obligations. Indeed, resources are likely insufficient to even subsist! Now, consider an economy teetering on the edge of collapse. Add an additional burden that has no payoff for a very long time. Even if the net long term result is immensely positive, the teetering economy cannot absorb the cost and then collapses. Once it collapses, the desirable actions can no longer be sustained and will be abandoned. Put another way, when faced with starvation and exposure, a population will abandon every activity that does not provide an immediate payoff in terms of survival.

Anyone who has bothered to read this far will have divined that I consider Canada pulling out of Kyoto to be a good thing. I believe the Kyoto Protocol is fundamentally flawed and at odds with reality. In fact, I believe that it is unlikely that any international accord will not be fundamentally flawed in similar ways. This is an indictment of human nature as much as anything.

Of course, nothing prevents Canada (or any nation) from pursuing emissions reduction in the absence of an international agreement. In fact, it is likely that Canada will do so. After all, there are long term benefits to doing so, ranging from cleaner air in cities to reducing the likelihood of catastrophic climate change. But in the absence of Kyoto, Canada will be free to choose achievable goals using methods that do not bankrupt its economy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *