No, it wasn’t successful: Failures and lessons from the Kyoto Protocol’s ashes

From overarching great consensus treaties to smaller agreements between countries, the future of international climate agreements has to learn from the failures of the Kyoto Protocol and its inability to stem the flow of greenhouse gas emissions. Ralph Winkler, international environmental cooperation expert, on the contradictions and opportunities of the agreement signed in 1997.

Establishing whether the Kyoto Protocol failed or succeeded in terms of emissions reductions is a complicated process whereby you will never get a definitive answer. However what is clear is that even if it was able to reduce emissions, compared to a world where it was never signed, then these reductions were minimal. 

On the other hand, the true legacy of the Kyoto Protocol is clearly the paradigm shift it contributed to in terms of how we approach international climate agreements and the issue of mitigation.

From the possibility of bringing together broad consensus agreements with additional agreements with smaller groups of countries, international environmental cooperation expert at the University of Bern, Ralph Winkler talks us through why he is optimistic about the future and not too critical of the Kyoto Protocol, notwithstanding the fact that his research indicates that we may have been better without it in terms of the impact it had on reducing emissions.

“It’s unfair to say that the Kyoto Protocol was a complete failure. Even if it didn’t really lead to a significant reduction in emissions, it was an important step towards a carbon-neutral world, particularly from a political standpoint. It showed that it was possible to strike a global agreement on climate and that the world community could build a consensus on climate goals and even fulfil them.”

What aspects of international climate negotiations do you focus on in your research?

I am particularly interested in the international dimension of climate change cooperation and, therefore, everything that concerns the design of international environmental agreements. From what they are to the problems that arise in governing the process of international climate cooperation.

For example, the UNFCCC system has a particular format whereby all decisions need to be virtually unanimous for them to pass. This leads to a “great consensus game”, which may not always be the best way to approach climate issues where different countries have different priorities and concerns.

Is there an alternative to this great consensus game?

An opposing governance structure would be to have small agreements among the big players. For example, facilitating strong agreements between large economies such as the US, the EU and China and even others such as India, Mexico, Canada and so forth. By getting these main global economic players to agree we could have a significant impact on the climate problem by accounting for the majority of global emissions.

Do you think large international agreements on climate should be replaced with smaller ones? Would this facilitate the negotiation process?

Not really. The two are not necessarily exclusive. You can have these kinds of consensus treaties that the UN facilitates, like the Paris Agreement, and on top of that, you could have additional agreements with smaller groups of countries. It is not a matter of choosing between one or the other. The UNFCCC endeavor can provide a good basic framework on which to build, but it’s also clear that this alone does not necessarily bring the changes we need. 

Do you have an example of how this would play out in today’s economic and political landscape?

Well, it could be very different things. One current example is that today more and more countries are committing to relatively strict unilateral climate policies such as carbon neutrality by 2050 or 2060. This will require much stricter climate policies, even in the short term. In this context, it will be in the best interests of large economies to try to coordinate among each other for economic reasons.

The key is that you don’t want to put your own industry at a disadvantage compared to other regions with strict climate policies. But if you have similar goals, it makes sense to coordinate these policies.

What is stopping countries from making stronger commitments to climate goals and sticking to them?

Simply having less players and smaller agreements does not necessarily mean that stronger commitments are easier to achieve because there is still a lack of a supranational authority to really enforce these agreements. The self-enforcement characteristic of international climate agreements means that it has to be in the best interest of countries to participate and comply, which in turn makes it difficult to obtain ambitious climate mitigation targets.

Another factor is the interplay of domestic and international politics. The way politics work is that you have a sort of political beauty contest on the domestic level and the winner of this contest determines how the country will behave on the international level. I am very interested in how the international level influences domestic policies and vice versa.

With regards to the Kyoto Protocol your research indicates that it was a failed experiment, at least in terms of reducing emissions. Why is this?

Broadly speaking, what we showed is that countries with binding reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol did not release less CO2 than if they had not had them in the first place.

Of course, the problem with these kinds of analyses is always that we cannot observe the counterfactual: you cannot observe a world where these countries didn’t have Kyoto Protocol targets. Therefore, you must construct these counterfactual emission pathways, but essentially you will always be comparing apples with pears.

How did you construct your counterfactual?

We used two control groups. Firstly, we used the US, because although it was an industrialized economy, it didn’t ratify the Protocol, and then we used non-Annex B countries [Countries or Parties that are signatory nations to the Kyoto Protocol but not subject to to caps on their emissions of GHGs, editor’s note] which had relatively developed economies. However, it is important to recognize that these cross-country comparisons never provide conclusive causal identification – which also explains why there are some papers that find that the Kyoto Protocol had an effect on and others, like ours, that show that it didn’t – but rather help us address important questions that can inform future policy decisions. 

On paper the Kyoto countries managed to achieve and even exceed the aggregate goals they set out. Should this not be considered a success?

There is definitely a consensus idea that the Kyoto Protocol had a lot of help because the emission targets, at least on an aggregate level, were not ambitious enough. At the time of negotiation, they underestimated the relative decoupling in carbon intensity, meaning that the carbon intensity of production would reduce over time. On top of that we have the economic downturn of the financial crisis, which led to a fall in emissions, as well as the dismantling of the USSR. 

So, although the aggregate target was achieved, it would seem that this was more by coincidence and that the targets were not, at least on aggregate, ambitious enough. Even papers that see an emissions reduction effect due to the Kyoto Protocol see relatively small gains. The reduction goals were simply too conservative and only covered half of the world.

Would you say that the Kyoto Protocol was a failure?

It’s unfair to say that the Kyoto Protocol was a complete failure. Even if it didn’t really lead to a significant reduction in emissions, it was an important step towards a carbon-neutral world, particularly from a political standpoint. It showed that it was possible to strike a global agreement on climate and that the world community could build a consensus on climate goals and even fulfill them.

What can we learn from the Kyoto Protocol’s shortcomings?

What is still lacking today, even with the Paris Agreement, is any kind of punishment or sanctioning mechanism.

The problem is that countries don’t always comply with their own self-imposed targets. Even countries like Switzerland, where I am based, which in the past characterized itself as very proactive on climate issues, have not actually managed to live up to its own reduction targets. And that, of course, is not a problem that only Switzerland faces. It concerns many other countries.

There is no supranational authority that can impose hard or even soft sanctions.

Are you optimistic about the way climate agreements have developed since Kyoto and do you think we learned from the Protocol’s mistakes?

The Paris Agreement definitely was a step in the right direction, not least of which because it now covers the whole world. I also think this idea of self-imposed emissions targets, which are strongly monitored and have to be revised and updated is a definite improvement.

Overall, I would say that I am optimistic because we are really seeing a change in paradigm. Climate change mitigation has gone from a blame-shifting contest to a fundamental understanding that the climate is warming and that this will continue as long as we have positive net emissions of greenhouse gasses.

The policy implication of this realization is super straightforward: we have to reach net zero emissions. So, the question is now, when do we achieve that? This change in mentality also provides an incentive to get to net zero first and develop the technologies that the rest of the world will need to transition. The first ones to transition will have the first-mover advantage.

The idea is that we have an innovation race in green technologies rather than seeing mitigation just as a burden or cost and that strict unilateral commitments to net zero emissions emerging from current climate negotiations are a recognition of this paradigm shift.

Of course, this is a very optimistic view of the world centred on economic interests and global environmental interests becoming more aligned in the future.

Does this involve communicating the hidden opportunities in transitioning?

As researchers, we need to show people that it’s not just a cost but also an opportunity. The climate protection sector is the strongest growing sector worldwide. Investing in green technologies can increase our own welfare and prosperity and, at the same time, solve the global climate problem.

In my opinion, most people overestimate the costs of more ambitious climate policies because of the exponential nature of technological transitions.  

In general, we tend to underestimate how fast technological developments can happen. We always believe that new technologies are far from becoming competitive because, for a very long time, their market share has remained relatively low. Yet, this is exactly what is to be expected from an exponential transition path where market shares of the new technology remain low for a very long time until they suddenly catch up very quickly. A very good example is electric vehicles, where we currently see this rapid increase in market share.

What I see in data for a lot of different key technologies is that we are really in the very middle of this transition and getting close to the rapid increase phase. 


ralph_winkler_portrait_2021_2Ralph Winkler studied physics and economics at the Technical University of Munich and the University of Heidelberg. After post-doc positions at Keele University, UK and ETH Zurich, he took his current position as Professor of Environmnetal and Climate Economics at the Department of Economics and the Oeschger-Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern. His research focuses on international environmental cooperation, in particular the design and implications of international environmental agreements, and the relationship between domestic and international climate policy. 

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