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Post-Kyoto, a search for ‘a subtle skill’ in tackling climate change


The Kyoto Protocol was very much the north wind in Aesop's fable of the wind and the sun. Which of those elements could more quickly induce a man to discard his cloak - or a country to discard its carbon?


It is remarkable that so many people still think that the wind should have prevailed, that force (implicit or explicit) should have won over persuasion. Even Environment Minister Peter Kent, in his repudiation of Kyoto, appeared to suggest that a stronger wind than Kyoto might still be needed down the road. Let's hope not. Let's hope that, next time, Canada goes with the solar power.

It is by no means utopian to bet on the sun. Amory Lovins, the celebrated American environmental scientist, has argued for years that greenhouse gas emissions can be best controlled (and reduced) by radically decentralized decision-making in the private-sector economy.

In his new book, Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions in the New Energy Era, Mr. Lovins asserts that using only the profit incentives inherent in the marketplace and minimal government subsidies, the United States could entirely eliminate oil, coal and nuclear energy from its economy, and simultaneously reduce natural gas consumption by as much as one-third, by 2050. This transformation could happen, he says, through greater energy efficiency, without new taxes or new laws.

Equally persuasive as an alternative to the hypocrisy of international treaties, and equally radical, is the eloquent "Hartwell paper," so-called for the English castle in which academics from OECD countries convened in 2010 to analyze the collapse the previous year of the Kyoto agreement at the Copenhagen round of Kyoto summits.

Co-published in May, 2010, by Oxford University and the London School of Economics as "A New Direction for Climate Policy After the Crash of 2009" it reflects the judgment of people who endorse "decarbonization" - but who deem the Kyoto accord an utter and abject failure.

"There is no evidence that ... the 'Kyoto' type approach [to climate control] has produced any discernible acceleration of decarbonization whatsoever: not anywhere, not in any region," the paper states. This was particularly true in Canada. The Kyoto Protocol required a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 6 per cent (from 1990 levels); in fact, Canada increased emissions by 36 per cent.

Kyoto became impossibly burdened by the conflicting agendas of too many countries, the Hartwell paper argues. The moment of truth came at Copenhagen when the debate degenerated from windy rhetoric to blackmail - "when utopian talk of global solutions and universal solutions" by rich countries gave way to petty demands for cash by poor countries.

But the fundamental error of Kyoto, the Hartwell paper argued, was its erroneous assumptions that science can successfully dictate public policy and that climate change could be "solved" by government decree. A less doctrinaire policy would have put it differently, the paper said, citing a 2010 article in The Economist: "Action on climate is justified, not because the science is certain, but precisely because it is not."

Any credible carbon policy must therefore reflect a certain scientific humility. The public will quickly tire of policy wars that cannot be won: the war on cancer, on drugs, on poverty. As with all other such wars, the war on carbon will never be won; atmospheric carbon will be, at best, managed.

If there must be a war on carbon, the Hartwell paper argued, it should be a guerrilla war - fought differently in different countries with decentralized targets on diverse fronts: on adaptation to climate change, on energy efficiency, on forest policy, on biodiversity, on air quality. Each foray must be fought for its own sake. The accumulation of incremental victories will significantly reduce carbon emissions. More fundamentally, each foray must have widespread public support.

The Hartwell paper offers a nice analogy. Imagine an English landscape gardener who must design a driveway to a great castle. He will not force a roadway through to the castle in a straight line. He will make it follow a circuitous route, passing here though a stand of great trees and there across an open field. He will incorporate many different perspectives and will achieve an aesthetic result. The sequel to Kyoto, whatever it may be, should exhibit "a subtle skill ... the capacity to deliver an ambitious objective harmoniously."

Please, Mr. Kent: No more complex, top-down regulatory regimes. They aren't necessary. They, too, will fail.



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