The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol and the Struggle to Slow Global Warming

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

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Climate Change

Treaties and Agreements

Most politicians, policy-makers, and analysts hailed the Kyoto Protocol as a vital first step toward slowing greenhouse warming. Council Senior Fellow David Victor was not among them. In this clear and cogent book, Victor explains why the Kyoto Protocol is unlikely to enter into force and how its failure will offer the opportunity to establish a more realistic alternative.

Kyoto's fatal flaw, Victor argues, is that it can work only if so-called emissions trading works. The protocol requires industrialized nations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to specific targets. Crucially, the protocol also provides emissions trading, whereby nations can offset rapid cuts in their emissions by buying emissions credits from other countries. But starting this trading system would require creating emission permits worth $2 trillion—the largest single creation of assets by voluntary international treaty in world history. Even if it were politically possible to distribute such astronomical sums, the protocol does not provide for adequate monitoring and enforcement of these new property rights. Nor does it offer an achievable plan for allocating new permits, which would be essential if the system were expanded to include developing countries.

The collapse of the Kyoto Protocol—which Victor views as inevitable—will provide the political space to rethink strategy. Better alternatives would focus on policies that control emissions, such as emission taxes. Though economically sensible, however, a pure tax approach is impossible to monitor in practice. Thus, the author proposes a hybrid in which governments set targets for both emission quantities and tax levels. This offers the important advantages of both emission trading and taxes without the debilitating drawbacks of either.

A Council on Foreign Relations Book


Reviews and Endorsements

In 1997, 38 relatively rich nations agreed at Kyoto to reduce by 2012 their greenhouse gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, to below 1990 levels. This short and closely reasoned book argues persuasively that this plan is deeply flawed.

Foreign Affairs

Victor is no Pollyanna. He thinks public awareness of the problem is widespread. The lack of a 'viable architecture' for international cooperation is the main impediment to action.

David Warsh, The Boston Globe

Victor is not the enemy. He bears bad news, but one's reaction to bad news should not be directed against its bearer. Victor's painstaking analysis shows that the signers of the protocol left the really difficult questions to be worked out later, according to an unrealistic timetable. He carefully analyzes the alternative ways these difficult matters could succeed.

John B. Cobb, Christian Century

David Victor 'thinks big' about the architecture of an international regime that would effectively regulate the primary cause of this climate change: emissions of greenhouse gases into the global atmosphere. . . . Victor's analysis makes it clear that in order to design a policy framework that will allow active control of the rate of future climate change, the US will have to engage with the emerging new institutions of global environmental governance.

Mike Hulme, The Times Higher Education Supplement

Victor's analysis is sharp and fresh. . . . He offers a measured analysis of intelligent solutions. . . . At heart, though, he argues that the protocol will fail because of its architecture and its inability to take modern economic truths into account.

Alanna Mitchell, The Globe and Mail

"Required reading [for] those interested in international relations and economics."