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'Life After Kyoto'
Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

'Life After Kyoto'

David Victor discusses what direction international strategies should go to address climate change.

By Margaretta Soehendro
Staff Writer

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The Kyoto Protocol ineffectively addresses global climate change, because of the binding nature of the emission targets and the strategy of engaging developing countries through the clean development mechanism (CDM), said David Victor at a Feb. 1, 2008 event sponsored by the UCLA Burkle Center. Victor, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, directs that university's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development.

"What was the prevailing wisdom at the time about how to design international environmental agreements to make them really effective?" he asked at the talk. "That wisdom was largely adopted by the Kyoto process … [and that] explains a lot about the current troubles we're having with the Kyoto agreement."

Victor has analyzed and criticized the Kyoto Protocol before. His book The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming (2001) discusses why the protocol would never be effective, even if the United States had signed on, and how it would be difficult to enforce. His current book project is about "life after Kyoto," trying to explain how the situation became a "mess" and to offer a practical strategy to fix it.

The Kyoto Protocol relies heavily on the credibility of the countries' emission commitments, Victor said at the talk, and countries do take their agreements seriously: the level of compliance is 100 percent. But countries only signed the protocol, and other similar agreements, if they foresaw an ability to meet the targets. If they did not, they would try to negotiate the emission level to a lower, achievable amount, and if negotiations fell through, the countries would simply not sign the agreement.

Victor said the only thing wrong about the United States not signing the Kyoto Protocol was in the manner it delivered the decision. Even if the United States had signed the agreement, it would have not have been able to meet the emissions targets.

"The United States had no credible way to put through the implementing legislation and ratification instrument to comply with the agreement, so it had to back out of the Kyoto Protocol," said Victor.

Victor suggested more flexible and non-binding agreements negotiated by senior politicians would be more effective in addressing the global climate change problem. He gave the North Sea as an example of how early, strictly binding protocols similar to the Kyoto Protocol were ineffective until negotiations shifted to broad packages of obligations negotiated by heads of state that would be translated into finer resolutions. There is still a lot of work to be done, he said, but there has been a "dramatic turnaround" in pollution in the North Sea in the past 30 years because of the change in strategy.

"It's exactly that kind of style, a change in statecraft, that's going to be necessary in the climate change problem," Victor said.

Another necessary change, he said, is the strategy for dealing with developing countries. Victor said the CDM, which looks at projects at project-by-project basis, has largely not worked. While the CDM sounds good in theory, the reality has proven otherwise. Victor said some developing countries falsify higher carbon emissions to get more CDM credit to trade with industrialized countries looking to meet their Kyoto Protocol emission targets. The CDM system doesn't encourage developing countries to progress in climate change strategies.

"The system structurally produces fraud. There is no way you can figure out which projects are genuine reductions and which are not genuine reductions," said Victor.

He suggested industrialized countries use strong coercion to get developing countries more involved in addressing the climate change problem, such as trade sanctions against those who don't control their emissions.

Developed countries should also identify the areas that they and developing countries have as common interests and "push hard on those fronts." The sulfur dioxide regulation in China is proof, Victor said, of how effective such a strategy can be. China wanted to lower the air pollution already, but had concerns about access to natural gas and patented technology to process natural gas as an energy source. But the United States pursued this issue, targeted the well-organized power industry, eased obstacles and provided incentives. The U.S.-China Joint Economic Study, released December 2007, reports on how a sulfur dioxide emissions trading program between China and the United States could work out.

"So I think we need to rethink the strategy that we're following for the major developing countries and not rely so heavily on markets as a way, on their own, to reduce these emissions, but focus on the handful of big opportunities," said Victor.

Burkle Center for International Relations