On Dec. 8, the latest U.N. Climate Change Conference wrapped up in Doha, Qatar. The gathering made two things quite evident: There is no international consensus for action, and U.N. climate conferences get less relevant with each passing year.
Adoption of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 marked the high point of U.N. climate efforts. It established supposedly binding restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions in 37 industrialized countries – principally those in the European Community. The target: Reduce global emissions by 5 percent (from 1990 levels) by 2012. They didn't come close.
The U.S. is not a party to the Kyoto Protocol. Supporters of the pact point to this fact to somehow explain why the desired reductions never happened. Their fingers point in the wrong direction.
The big problem is the pact itself. It's based on questionable assumptions. Forecasting models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been heavily contested. Moreover, the pact exempted major developing countries, such as China, from any responsibility for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Additional loopholes allowed even some developed countries to largely avoid emissions reductions.
But even if those shortcomings didn't exist, the Kyoto Protocol still would have failed. Even with U.S. participation and perfect compliance by all parties, Kyoto would have done virtually nothing to reduce emissions and have no detectable impact on climate change.
Why? Because the basic approach is unworkable. That's why these conferences continue to move backward, not forward. The Kyoto Protocol essentially placed the entire economic burden of addressing climate change on a few dozen countries, while asking nothing from more than 150 countries. That approach might make sense if the industrialized countries could reduce worldwide emissions all on their own, but they can't.
China surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2006. Just three years later, its emissions were 45 percent higher than ours. Other developing countries are also rapidly increasing their emissions. And these nations – primarily India and China – have made it quite clear that they have no appetite for either slowing economic growth or switching to nonfossil fuels to curb emissions. In fact, according to a recent report from the World Resources Institute, nearly 1,200 new coal-fired power plants are already on the drawing boards – and China and India alone account for 76 percent of them.
No surprise, then, that Canada, Japan and Russia refused to sign onto a new agreement in Doha committing them to emissions reductions unless major developing-country emitters were also included. Understandably, they see little benefit in hampering their economic growth and their citizens' prosperity for the sake of a symbolic gesture that, in the end, would not significantly alter the trajectory of emissions growth.
If the federal government wants productive outcomes, it should undertake independent efforts to more accurately determine the severity of climate change and verify U.N. claims. Then, working with a smaller group of nations through informal arrangements such as the Major Economies Forum, those nations could undertake appropriate steps toward a cost-effective reduction in warming.
The U.N. climate change conferences, however, are simply a waste of time and a waste of taxpayer money. The U.S. should call for a moratorium on any conferences that emphasize financial transfers and reinforce the flawed, ineffective Kyoto methodology of differentiated responsibilities.
What about acting unilaterally? Trying to mitigate warming by "going it alone" would be futile – and costly for taxpayers and energy consumers. Better to remove unnecessary regulations on fossil fuels that drive up energy costs, stop wasteful and ineffective subsidies of carbon-free energy sources, and block any attempts to implement a carbon tax.
And let's stop wasting millions of taxpayer dollars attending and financing these conferences. If nothing else, it would reduce all those unnecessary emissions produced by those who jet in to represent their countries, industries and special interests.
• Brett D. Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation's Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs. Nicolas Loris is the Morgan Fellow in Heritage's Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.