Kyoto: Impossible Goal or Economic Opportunity?

smokestack Many wealthy countries that signed on to the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008–12 are now wavering in their commitments, according to Reuters news service. Canada declared in March that it would not be able to meet its stated target for cutting fossil fuel emissions from factories, power plants, and cars by 2012. Several European Union nations have proposed laxer obligations for high-polluting industries—including Germany, which has offered all new power plants unlimited emissions for 14 years.

While some critics believe that meeting the Kyoto goals would be too costly, others say the costs are likely to be insignificant. A series of economic models highlighted in the journal Nature in May concluded that even the toughest global climate goals for the 21st century—far beyond Kyoto—would slow growth of the world gross domestic product by only less than 1 percentage point by 2100.

Worldwatch Institute President Chris Flavin and Senior Researcher Janet Sawin agree that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be viewed as an economic opportunity, not as a setback. “The challenge is to create a new energy system that will not only protect the climate but will be economically superior to the one in place today,” they note in a 2005 news release.

According to Flavin and Sawin, Kyoto’s main stumbling block is the premise that emissions controls alone are the answer to climate change. A more productive outlook, they argue, would be to embrace the widespread economic possibilities—and supportive government policies—that such controls foster. The global market for renewable energy technologies, driven in large part by the boom in wind and solar power, exceeded $25 billion in 2004, the researchers note, and in many markets renewable energy has become less expensive than fossil fuels.

One necessary step to nurture this nascent energy system, Flavin and Sawin argue, is to replace subsidies for fossil fuels with subsidies for new technologies—supports that would be phased out as these industries become more competitive. “If saving the climate becomes a race for who dominates one of the fastest growing sectors of the 21st century economy, recalcitrance and delay will no longer be viewed by climate negotiators as the keys to ‘success,’” they write.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.