The most recent attempt to undermine the Kyoto deal is strikingly inconsistentby Michael Grubb / September 25, 2005 / Leave a comment
July’s house of Lords committee report on climate change has been widely interpreted as backing President Bush in rejecting Kyoto-style emission targets in favour of technology-based solutions. Economists, in particular, greeted the report as a voice of reason in a politicised field. Dick Taverne’s August Prospect essay, “Political Climate,” also praised the report, and Taverne linked the Lords’ criticism of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC)—the body established to provide governments with authoritative data on the issue—with the Copenhagen consensus, an analysis by some leading economists and scientists that attacks Kyoto and says climate change should be close to the bottom of a list of global concerns.
So are the 150 countries that have ratified the Kyoto treaty, and most climate scientists who back stronger action, wrong? Is the IPCC exaggerating the threat? And are the Kyoto targets doing almost nothing to tackle global warming—as the Lords report claims?
It seems unlikely. But what is clear is that the Lords report is marked by several glaring internal contradictions, and the Copenhagen consensus conclusion has been publicly disowned by one of the most senior economists associated with it.
The most striking inconsistencies within the Lords report are those between its summary—as promoted to the media—and its main text. The first concerns technology and the Kyoto protocol. The summary urges the government to “take the lead in exploring alternative ‘architectures’ for future protocols, perhaps based on agreements on technology and its diffusion.” This was the source of the many newspaper headlines declaring that the Lords backed Bush’s stance. How strange then to find in chapter five of their own report that they are “not confident” that governments can or should choose which technologies to back, and indeed that it is “far better that government sets the goal and the price signals to achieve that goal, leaving the market to select the technologies and their rate of diffusion through the economy.” Setting goals and giving economic flexibility and price signals through emissions trading is just what Kyoto aims to do.
The second inconsistency surrounds scientific uncertainty and the valuation of the damage caused by global warming. The report provides a welcome acknowledgement both of the scientific fundamentals, and the fact that future emissions, rates of temperature change and associated impacts are all very uncertain and currently unquantifiable. Yet the summary then criticises the IPCC for not quantifying the damage.