The World Just Smashed Its Kyoto Climate Change Goal. Now What?

If a failed treaty can do this, imagine what a successful one could do.

Getty Images / Sean Gallup

The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions and get a hold on runaway climate change, was generally regarded as a diplomatic failure back in 1997, as negotiations fell apart and key players withdrew from the table. But in retrospect, the agreement has proved a surprising success: A new report found that signatories blew past their collective commitment by 2.4 billion tons between 2008 and 2012. All 36 individual signatories met the terms of the agreement, after flexible goals were taken into account.

A cynic would say that this was a happy accident — that global economic turmoil slowed growth that would have otherwise propelled higher emissions. This is maybe true, but there’s also room to be hopeful. For one, the cost to comply with targets set out in Kyoto was a lot less than expected. The most any country spent to achieve the targets was 0.1 percent of GDP, and for many the cost was much lower. This price tag was between a tenth and a quarter of what experts predicted at the time of the signing.

Again, the cynic here will say that targets were only met because it was cheap to do so — if meeting goals had cost what it was expected to, the goals would not have been met. This is probably right, but also besides the point — the fact remains that alternative energy is getting cheaper and cheaper, and this bodes well for achieving climate change goals now and into the future.

Speaking of the future, this report is a great signal for the Paris Agreement, which was signed earlier this year, and is far more comprehensive than Kyoto dared to be. The world’s experience with Kyoto tells us that international agreements matter, and that meeting goals is not merely an accident. The United States never ratified Kyoto, and Canada backed out after initially agreeing, and these countries did far worse in terms of meeting goals set out in the protocol compared with countries that actually made the promise.

The commitments made within the Paris Agreement aren’t sufficient to keep the planet to two degrees Celsius of warming, which is the threshold many scientists agree we must keep below to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. But it’s a place to start, and if the Kyoto Protocol holds lessons for the future, it’s that countries are willing and able to do their part to fight climate change, and that costs associated with doing so will come down, making it easier for global efforts to ramp up.

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