Life After Kyoto: Pursuing Decarbonization

Published: January 18, 2013

Political scientists Matthew Hoffmann and Steven Bernstein argue that our goal remains the same with or without Kyoto.

The Kyoto Protocol is finished.  The United States and Canada had already withdrawn before its first round of commitments officially expired on New Year’s Eve, and other major emitters, including Japan and Russia, have said they will not join a second phase, preferring to wait for a new treaty – yet to be negotiated – to take effect in 2020.  This policy vacuum leaves only the European Union, Australia, and a handful of minor countries – whose emissions produce a measly 15 per cent of the world’s total – under a binding international agreement on climate change.

While the failure to negotiate a strong Kyoto successor deserves our attention, it doesn’t change the science, global concern, or public demands for action.  In fact, a number of countries, including the United States, have long-term goals of around 80-per-cent reductions by 2050, and, in 2009 at Copenhagen, the international community acknowledged scientists’ warning that emissions must peak and begin declining soon to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Yet, the scope of the mismatch between what we need to do – get on the path to decarbonization – and what the world has agreed to do – not much – is painfully clear.  We simply are not on the path to transformation needed to meet decarbonization goals.

Where we need to go from here remains exactly the same with or without Kyoto.  How to get there is not a problem of science and technology: Transitioning away from fossil fuels in our energy, transportation, and economic systems is no small task, but we have, or will soon have, the technology we need. Changes in infrastructure will follow changes in policy and technology.  Enough people are concerned about the problem to make a start.

The problem is political.  Political deadlock in the negotiations is distracting us from creating the means and incentives to decarbonize globally.  Political deadlock within many countries is stopping serious moves to create pathways to decarbonization domestically, especially in North America.

Our current fixation on targets and technological fixes as the answer misses the crucial element that now requires our attention: What set of policies and conditions will foster the innovations necessary to set decarbonization in motion, scale it up, and lock it in?  Clues can be found in successful policies around the world. Germany is an exemplar with massive renewable-energy programs that are working to both alter its energy system and enhance its economic position in the global renewable-energy sector. But perhaps the biggest lesson is that in Germany, the political environment is conducive to having a conversation between environmentalists, businesses, and conservatives about how to move towards decarbonization, rather than whether to do so.

In contrast, national governments in North America are not taking the lead, and may not for the foreseeable future. The good news is that innovations aimed at decarbonization still abound – amongst cities, provinces, states, and businesses.  Programs like Ontario’s Green Energy Act are increasing the production of renewable energy.  Communities and corporations are working through both local and global networks, like Sustainable Waterloo and the C40 group of large cities, to develop strategies for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. A new carbon market in California aims to incentivize innovation in the world’s eighth-largest economy, and there are plans to link it to a similar market in Quebec.  What we know is that these actions provide the raw policy materials for the broader transformation that must be forthcoming. What we know less about is why, in North America, the political coalitions and policy trajectories to lock in and scale up those innovations have been so hard to establish.

We must devise local policy frameworks that can foster innovation quickly.  We must strategize scaling of innovations.  We must understand how local innovations alter larger political environments.  Pieces of this knowledge exist, but in disparate communities of NGOs, government offices, boardrooms, and diverse groups of academics that too frequently fail to collaborate. We need to immediately start the conversation about what policy frameworks and business strategies are necessary to foster and lock in innovations that lead towards decarbonization.

Let’s stop arguing about which countries should do or pay more, and shift our focus to determining which roads will take us most quickly toward our real goal.


Steven Bernstein and Matthew Hoffmann are professors of political science at the University of Toronto who co-direct the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs. They have published widely on climate-change politics and are currently engaged in long-term research projects on both carbon markets and the politics of decarbonization.

Photo courtesy of Reuters.

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