This is an interesting commentary in Nature, right on many details if, I think, wrong in spirit. Gwyn Prins & Steve Rayner argue that Kyoto has failed and should be abandoned. Its successor policy should:

  1. Focus mitigation efforts on the big emitters
  2. Allow genuine emissions markets to evolve from the bottom up
  3. Put public investment in energy R&D on a wartime footing
  4. Increase spending on adaptation
  5. Work the problem at appropriate scales

I’d say that 3 and 4 command pretty broad agreement. Everyone thinks we need to be spending far more on energy R&D. Adaptation raises some hackles, as a delay and a distraction from mitigation. However, justice is quickly becoming part of the conversation, and justice means transfer of money from rich countries to poor, immediately, to protect vulnerable and — at least on climate change — innocent populations. It means adaptation.

The others are trickier.

It’s true that a small number of countries are responsible for most emissions, and that they bear a higher share of responsibility, but it is important politically (in, say, the U.S. Senate) that as broad a coalition of countries as possible be seen to participate. Regardless, I doubt finding consensus among the core emitting countries would be so much easier than finding it with a bunch of other low-emissions countries involved — it is the high-emitting countries that have the most at stake and thus the more intractable conflicts.

2 and 4 are more or less gesturing at the same thing, a "let 1,000 flowers bloom" approach that relies on entrepreneurial initiative at the local and regional level. Different areas try different approaches, "growing" carbon markets organically, until they link up.

I recognize the appeal — I like decentralized, iterative, evolutionary solutions as much as the next guy. But there are collective action problems all over the place here. If a country is emitting CO2 in the process of quickly developing its economy, and there are not yet models for how it can develop its economy otherwise, what motivation does it have to experiment with CO2 reduction strategies? What’s the incentive? Why not be a free rider, benefiting from the emissions reductions in other countries while taking advantage of the last of the cheap, dirty energy?

One way of combining the benefits of both systems would be to explicitly make international treaties a floor, not a ceiling, for national efforts; national efforts a floor, not a ceiling, for regional efforts; and so on. This gets you the improvements of a modest, mandatory international treaty without precluding local experimentation.

Of course, Prins and Rayner are somewhat ambiguous on the point of whether they disapprove of carbon markets altogether, or whether they just prefer a different method of developing them. Some people will interpret (and use) their piece as an excuse for simplistic Kyoto-bashing. But insofar as it’s a good-faith effort to find a better, faster way to the same end, it’s worth discussing.