Beyond Kyoto

Smoke billows from the Belchatow Power Station, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant, Poland, August 21, 2009. Peter Andrews / Reuters


In 1997, more than 180 countries gathered in Kyoto, Japan, in search of a coordinated international response to global warming. The provisional agreement they reached appeared to mark a significant step forward. But the Kyoto Protocol is coming unraveled. Despite nearly a decade of effort, it may not even enter into force as a binding instrument. Canada, Japan, and the European Union -- the most enthusiastic advocates of the Kyoto process -- are not on track to meet their commitments. And the United States has withdrawn from the agreement entirely. Those concerned with the sustainability of the earth's climate could be forgiven for feeling depressed.

Clear-eyed realism is essential. But dismay, however understandable, is a mistaken reaction. There is scope for a different and more positive view of the last seven years and of the future. First, it has become obvious that Kyoto was simply the starting point of a very long endeavor -- comparable, perhaps, to the meetings in 1946 at which a group of 23 countries agreed to reduce tariffs. Those meetings set in motion a process that led to the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in 1948, which, in turn, led to the creation of the World Trade Organization in the mid-1990s. Second, we have improved, if still imperfect, knowledge of the challenges and uncertainties that climate change presents, as well as a better understanding of the time scales involved. Third, many countries and companies have had experience reducing emissions and have proved that such reductions can be achieved without destroying competitiveness or jobs. Fourth, science and technology have advanced on multiple fronts. And finally, public awareness of the issue has grown -- not just in the developed world but all around the globe.

Seven years after the Kyoto meeting, it is becoming clear that the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is a soluble problem, and that the mechanisms for delivering the solutions are within reach. In that spirit of cautious optimism, it is time

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