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Kyoto Protocol get 'I' grade for 'Incomplete'

Three MIT professors who authored a report card on the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs essentially assigned the protocol a grade of "I" -- for "incomplete."

"The main point is that key long-term climate issues have not been addressed," explained Professor Henry D. Jacoby of the Sloan School of Management (co-author of the article titled "Kyoto's Unfinished Business," with Professors Ronald G. Prinn of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences and Richard Schmalensee of Sloan) in a recent interview.

"We've gotten all tied up in dealing with short-term targets and timetables for a long-term issue that potentially poses severe risks. The problem is not so much that long-term issues were ignored completely in Kyoto" -- the city in Japan where an international climate agreement was signed December 11, 1997, concluding two years of intense negotiations -- "but that the final text has a short-term emphasis that will cause people to lose sight of the bigger picture.

"Worse, the likely failure of nations to meet what are unrealistic short-term targets and timetables -- and possible attempts to paper over the failure with creative accounting -- could discredit the whole international process, and with it, chances for future collective action, should the problem turn out to be very serious."

The Foreign Affairs article argues that negotiators at Kyoto may have made it harder, not easier, to meet the long-term challenge of climate change. In support of this concern, the article includes a short, easy-to-read "primer" on the science and economics of global warming to increase readers' general understanding of some of the complex issues and uncertainties involved.

The authors then urge reasonable caution: "It would be irresponsible to ignore [the risk of significant global warming], just as it would be irresponsible to do nothing when you smell smoke at home until and unless you see flames. It would also be irresponsible, of course, to call the fire department and hose down all your belongings at the slightest whiff of smoke."

The article emphasizes the importance of focusing on the "architectural framework" of what might become vitally important future collective action, stipulating three essential elements of such a framework:

  • World-wide participation, including developing nations,
  • A substantial R & D program to develop new energy technologies that could bring about deep emission reductions and still allow robust economic growth,
  • International institutions capable of exploiting low-cost abatement and adapting to new scientific knowledge.

While the Foreign Affairs report card may not be one the negotiators proudly present to their parents, Dr. Jacoby notes how the "incomplete" grade can be made up: "This November at Buenos Aires [where the international discussions on global change will continue], an effort must be made to shift the focus to longer-range elements of wider participation, new technology, and flexible, adaptable mechanisms."

The full article is available on the web as Joint Program Report #32.

Dr. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management and codirector of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change (JPSPGC). Dr. Prinn is TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, codirector of the JPSPGC, director of the Center for Global Change Science, and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Dr. Schmalensee is the Gordon Y Billard Professor of Economics and Management, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, and acting dean of the Sloan School.

Research was funded through the JPSPGC by a supporting partnership of government organizations, international corporations, and foundations.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on July 15, 1998.

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