The Kyoto accord continues to be routinely bashed by all and sundry in the New Zealand mainstream media. It's described as a "billion-dollar bungle", presented as idealistic environmentalism and "big government" regulation, and opposed stoutly by grandstanding politicians. The Australian papers deride their flaky New Zealand cousins for signing up, and their articles are sheepishly reprinted here, with nary a dissenting voice.
The latest piece of scoffing comes from (who else) Roger Kerr. In a Business Roundtable press release on "Why the Greens Charm Offensive Failed", Kerr dismisses the Green Party's recent attempt to engage business leaders in constructive discussion. Among the policies he gives a once-over lightly critique is "another iconic Green policy, the Kyoto Protocol".
The Greens, says Kerr "seem unwilling to accept that Kyoto is not going to happen - one country after another looks set to ignore its commitments - and that the US approach to global warming, based on research and technology, is likely to carry the day".
Kerr goes on to accuse the Greens of not wanting to engage with "well-documented criticisms of doom-mongering, such as the work of Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg". If the Greens want improved dialogue with business, he recommends they put "more emphasis on market-based solutions to environmental problems instead of central planning and regulation".
So, was Kyoto drawn up by a bunch of Luddite, economically naiive, tree-hugging greenies? Actually no--it was negotiated by teams of international scientists and economists, and is exactly the kind of technology-favouring, "market-based solution" that Kerr claims to favour. Moreover, the compromises struck in its development are exactly the kinds that Lomborg argues for in his writings.
The Kyoto accord established a goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels, to help hold global warming to the less drastic end of possible scenarios. But rather than set heavy handed, one-size-fits-all regulations, a market-based system was devised, which allowed the trading of emissions.
Greenhouse gas emissions are acknowledged to produce a long-term cost for everybody. So the system was designed to make that cost be factored into economic decisions. This favours technology development, because if you can come up with smarter, cleaner technology to help reduce emissions, you won't have to pay the cost of the excess emissions.
If, however it won't be economic for you to hit the emissions targets just yet, you can buy credits off somebody else--essentially paying them to be more efficient or cleaner on your behalf.
However, most developing countries don't have the flexibility to make these kind of trade offs. As Lomborg points out, for most of them, worrying about global warming is less of a priority than food, clean water, sanitation, proper housing and medicine for their citizens. With much lower per capita emissions than rich countries, they simply need to be able to develop their economies and improve their overall standard of living. To quote National Party environment spokesperson Nick Smith: "if you want to be clean, first you've got to be rich".
So it was agreed that developing countries would be exempt from the Kyoto targets for the "first commitment period" up to 2012. Like most international agreements, the accord was imperfect, pragmatic and provisional. But in 1998 most everyone found it acceptable, including the USA and Australia.
Later, of course, Bush and Howard backed out. Despite the fact that as big, rich economies, the US and Australia are among the best-placed countries to make the necessary changes--such as fast-forwarding new technologies--they decided they couldn't possibly handle the short-term adjustment costs or, God forbid, lose competitive advantage to developing countries.
Recently it was annouced that the US, Australia, India, China, Japan and South Korea had signed a pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through technology development and sharing. This is what lies behind Kerr's reference to "the US approach to global warming, based on research and technology". For those who were consistently fed the idea that Kyoto=whacky green Ludditism, this looked like good old George and John goin' it alone and trumping 'em again. Research and technology beats woolly, anti-growth environmentalism.
Except that Kyoto already promotes and incentivises research and technology. And the US-driven pact does not make any commitments or set any targets. Critics say it is mostly an attempt to protect export markets and help the coal industry (pact signatories include the four biggest coal-producing nations). It looks rather like an attempt to gesture at doing something about what is now a univerally acknowledged problem, without playing by the same rules as everybody else.
This is in fact a far from universal attitude in the countries in question. A number of American states, counties and cities have set themselves emissions targets, and groups of businesses have even been lobbying the federal government to set clear regulations (no, really!). They figure there will be regulations at some stage (maybe when we get a Democractic administration), and they would like some certainty.
With respect to future outcomes, Kerr may well be right--if the US and Australia don't formally sign up, Kyoto may not fly. There are also some principled arguments about flaws in the emissions trading system, or the particular Kyoto-related measures the NZ government has tried to implement here--the doomed "fart tax" on animal methane, and the current carbon tax.
But it's utterly misleading and disingenuous to present Kyoto as idealistic green-ism, in opposition to technology and market-based approaches. And it's lamentable that the media lazily allowes this to become the received wisdom, so the likes of Peters and Dunne can can gain votes by their grandstanding.
Kerr could express qualified enthusiasm for the kind of law-governed market system of which Adam Smith would have approved, and suggest ways to make it work better. Instead, he and his ilk simply choose to bash and obsfucate. So, rather than being engaged in a genuine debate about our alternatives, the public is pushed back into the good old Kiwi attitude of "she'll be right". Which effectively translates as: "let somebody else deal with the problem; we'll freeload".
Categories: Kyoto, New Zealand, climate change, global warming