The Kyoto Protocol has taken criticism from all sides over the years. But in fairness, it is important to recognize that, according to almost any estimate, the treaty has resulted in surpassed targets in some nations, significant emissions reductions even in nations that may miss their targets, and a marked improvement over business-as-usual had there been no treaty. Whether nations ratified the treaty or abstained, all have been the beneficiaries of global benefits these reductions have generated.
As nations prepare to meet in Copenhagen, it would seem to be an opportune time to evaluate the success of the current international treaty to combat climate change. Kyoto is often judged based on how many countries are meeting their targets to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Contrary to past predictions that most major countries would struggle to reach their targets, it now seems likely that several countries — including much of Europe — are on pace to meet or even surpass their required cuts.
Some nations, like Japan, might have trouble reaching their targets, but the Kyoto Protocol has prompted those countries to take major steps towards reduced emissions. Even if its targets are missed, Japan has made significant commitments to renewable energy, energy efficiency, reforestation, and other policies designed to mitigate global warming.
The problem is, to judge Kyoto’s success, we must compare current emissions to business-as-usual projections: what would emissions levels look like if there were no Kyoto Protocol? There are plenty of business-as-usual projections, but unfortunately they were based on a pre-recession model of emissions growth. Because emissions have fallen along with global economic productivity, it is very difficult to say how much reductions in greenhouse gases can be attributed to the recession, and how much can be attributed to Kyoto. Any attempt to parse out the two will likely be subject to criticism from one side or the other.
So, while it may remain impossible to get a perfectly clear picture of the impact of the Kyoto Protocol, it is folly to dismiss the effort as a failure. By giving countries economic incentives to cut emissions, both in the developed countries subject to commitments and in developing countries that were able to participate through the Clean Development Mechanism, Kyoto almost certainly contributed to global reductions, and we are in a better place now than we would have been without it.
As negotiators descend on Copenhagen, hopefully to begin work on a more aggressive agreement, they would be wise to glance back at its predecessor and note that the efforts of participating nations have done the world an important service.