One flaw in the Kyoto treaty is that its legal targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions, set in 1997, were mainly guesswork. Now many nations that signed onto it will likely not meet their targets for 2008-2012. Hopes of a new pact may go up in smoke.
What's needed at talks for a post-Kyoto treaty that began last week in Montreal is a new realism. Kyoto's successor must match the level of popular urgency about climate change to both the people's willingness for economic sacrifice and to reliable estimates of the costs of technological fixes. It was that mismatch in the Kyoto treaty that has hurt its promise - not the bipartisan rejection by the Clinton-era US Senate and later President Bush, or the lack of India and China as part of the treaty.
Kyoto's designers underestimated the obstacles to scrubbing carbon dioxide and other climate- altering gases from human activities. (It's not the first time that modern idealism has gone amuck on human behavior.) Now, the dashed hopes of Kyoto's success could damage the momentum for a new international consensus to come to grips with global warming and its possible human causes.
A greater admission of Kyoto's failures should be the first step toward regaining traction. The Washington-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change, for one, has found Kyoto flawed. The European Commission, while still hoping its nations can meet the target of reducing greenhouse gases by 8 percent below 1990 levels, concedes the continent has made little progress. The EC estimates that reductions will be down by only 1.6 percent by 2010.
Canada's most-recent data shows emissions were up 24 percent above 1990 levels, hardly the kind of progress needed to meet its target of 6 percent below 1990 levels. Japan is expected to have a 12 percent increase by 2010.
Better a treaty than no treaty, one might say. But the prospect of so many Kyoto violators puts in question the whole idea of a new global treaty that once again would commit nations to change their polluting businesses and transportation.
An alternative pushed by Mr. Bush is voluntary action by businesses, backed by government research and incentives toward clean energy. The US also put together a coalition last June with China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Australia to share their clean-energy research.
The pace of such voluntary efforts, however, will likely be meager against the pace of global warming (not that a successful Kyoto would have done much either). The US has not slowed down its average rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Cobbling together a post-Kyoto plan of global action will not be easy. China and India at least are now looped into action through the clean-energy coalition. Many states in the US plan to coerce businesses to clean up. And many global businesses, wary of uncertain emissions regulations, actually want firm plans. Insurance companies, too, would like a long-range look at whether humanity can rise to the challenge of keeping major climate disaster at bay.
Compromise between Europe, the US, and poor nations might be in the air. But it will be tough to find until the air is cleaned of Kyoto's missteps.