WSJ: The Kyoto Scorecard

  • Date: 04/01/13
  • Editorial, The Wall Street Journal

The Kyoto Protocol on climate change used to be a big deal. So big that the future of humanity was said to hinge on its implementation. Did you know it expired on New Year’s Day? We’re guessing you didn’t, but don’t worry. It’s no big deal.

Adopted in 1997 and in force since 2005, the U.N. compact was intended to lock in its signatories into curbing or cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions relative to 1990 levels. It didn’t work out as planned.

Japan promised a 6% reduction relative to its 1990 levels, but instead saw a 7.4% increase, despite 20 years of economic stagnation. Australia, where growth has been more robust, pledged to let carbon increase by no more than 8%. Instead its 1990-2010 emissions rose 47.5%.

The Netherlands promised a 6% cut but wound up with 20% higher emissions by the end of 2010. Canada, one of the pact’s most enthusiastic early backers, committed to a 6% cut but saw a 24% emissions increase above 1990 levels. In 2011 Ottawa announced it was withdrawing from Kyoto to avoid the penalties it would have owed for missing its target.

On paper, the EU as a whole looks set to meet its overall 2012 emissions target. But that’s mainly thanks to economic stagnation and the closure of inefficient Soviet-era industries. Europe’s cap-and-trade system also encourages industry to move production abroad while pocketing payments in the form of “carbon credits.”

As for the U.S., it saw an emissions increase of only 10.3% between 1990 and 2010, despite economic and population growth that outpaced most of the industrialized world. Some of the thanks here go to the shale-gas revolution, which uses technology that still hasn’t gotten past most European regulators. This triumph of American ingenuity might never have happened if Al Gore had managed to drag the U.S. into Kyoto 15 years ago.

So is that it? Not precisely. In December, the U.N. announced a last-minute “extension” of the protocol until 2020, though this is life-support by press release. New Zealand, Russia and Japan have followed Canada’s lead and are now officially out of Kyoto’s carbon strictures, while the world’s largest emitters in China and the U.S. were never in. Now only Australia and the EU remain.

In its day, the Kyoto Protocol did its share of economic damage by distorting energy markets and encouraging job-killing legislation. Some of that damage will remain. Still, count this as another eco-cure that arrived with a bang and departed, as so many of them do, with a whimper.

The Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2013