Do climate agreements help the environment? Is there another way to reduce carbon emissions?

Consider the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and others). The Protocol, adopted in 1997, was ratified by 181 countries but only 37 had binding targets. China, Brazil, and India and other developing countries had voluntary targets. Canada dropped out of the agreement and the United States did not participate since the Senate did not ratify the treaty.

The treaty took effect in 2005 with a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emission to 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. By 2012, more than half of the 37 countries met their targets.

Was the international agreement the cause? Hard to say.

Those countries had already begun to drop carbon emissions by replacing coal with natural gas which produces almost half as much CO2. The U.S., which was not a party to the agreement, also experienced decreased carbon emissions for the same reason.

According to Bjorn Lomborg with the Copenhagen Consensus Center, carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. had dropped to their lowest level in 20 years in 2012. U.S. CO2 emissions were down by 500 megatons per year which is roughly twice the impact of reductions by Kyoto participants.

The transition from coal to natural gas was made possible by advances in hydraulic fracturing a.k.a fracking. The technology has been around for some 60 years but in recent years has become more efficient and effective. Fracking and other technology will continue to improve and with it, clean, affordable power generation.

So there’s good reason based on past experience to be optimistic about technology and skeptical of international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the more recent Paris Accords.

Given the lackluster results of the Kyoto Protocols, it is unclear if the Paris Accords would produce significant reductions in carbon emissions. Even if faithfully implemented by every country, proposed emission reductions would likely result in less than a degree Celsius of warming by the year 2100.

The potential benefits of the Paris Accords are, at best, modest but the costs are very high.

In order to meet “voluntary” targets, the U.S. would have to implement extreme regulations. If the U.S. remained in the Paris Accords, we would lose $2.5 trillion in gross domestic product by 2035 and experience an increase in electricity costs by 13-20 percent.

Rather than risk the economic impact, the U.S. would be better off continuing to invest in technology. Demand for safe, clean, affordable energy provides a more powerful incentive for progress than government regulations or international regulations.

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