The Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change: A Badly Needed Alternative to the Kyoto Protocol

Report Environment

The Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change: A Badly Needed Alternative to the Kyoto Protocol

September 24, 2007 5 min read

Authors: Brett Schaefer and Ben Lieberman

The two multinational climate change meetings scheduled for this week offer a stark contrast for addressing the issue of global warming. Both meetings are intended to serve as preparatory discussions for international efforts to address climate change, including the December meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bali. On September 24, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will host "The Future in our Hands: Addressing the Leadership Challenge of Climate Change." The meeting, to be attended by more than 70 heads of state, is expected to set the stage for a post-Kyoto Protocol multilateral agreement establishing binding emissions targets along with discussions on "adaptation, mitigation, clean technologies, deforestation and resource mobilization."[1]

On September 27-28, the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change, initiated by President Bush several months ago, will bring together the world's major emitters of greenhouse gases to discuss future national goals. The Bush Administration favors voluntary emissions reductions supplemented by technological innovation, which differs from the binding international targets and regulation exemplified by the failed Kyoto Protocol. The Administration's approach offers a more promising means for creating a rational and workable climate policy.

The Ineffectual U.N. Approach to Climate Change
The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the key multilateral treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, establishes a cap-and-trade approach under which participating developed nations must meet emissions reduction goals for the 2008-2012 compliance period. Developing nations like China, India, and Brazil are not required to reduce their emissions. The United States has chosen not to be party, citing potential economic damage from compliance as well as the exemptions granted to developing nations that are major emitters of greenhouse gases.  

The Kyoto Protocol is proving to be a failure. Most of the major Kyoto parties that pledged to reduce their emissions-namely Western Europe, plus Canada and Japan-are not on track to meet their reduction goals. Indeed, nearly every country that pledged to reduce emissions under Kyoto actually has higher emissions today than when the treaty was first signed. Further, despite ongoing criticism of the United States from Kyoto parties, emissions in many of these nations are rising faster than in the United States. Largely ignored is the fact that emissions from developing nations, which are not restricted under Kyoto, are the world's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases. Particularly egregious is the exemption of China, which is on the verge of overtaking America as the world's largest emitter.

Despite the near impossibility of meeting current targets, many European nations are proposing far stricter post-2012 goals at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in December. However, this meeting is shaping up to be little more than a charade-making bold promises for the future in order to mask the failure of current emissions targets.  

The Administration recognizes that it is time to move beyond Kyoto. Ahead of the last major G-8 summit in Germany last June, President Bush announced a separate process, outside of Kyoto, to bring together the United States and 15 other major emitting nations, both developed and developing, plus representatives from the European Union and the United Nations.[2] Unlike Kyoto, this process would not end in a multilateral agreement with legally binding caps, but would more closely resemble what the United States is already doing in setting more flexible "aspirational" goals. Each nation would work towards its own goals and fashion its own compliance mechanism. The Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change will be the first step in formalizing this process.             

In concert with this process, the Administration has also spearheaded the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, an agreement by which both developed and developing nations can coordinate the creation and deployment of clean technologies. It is a growth-based approach that actively engages the critically important developing economies of China and India as well as America, Japan, South Korea, and Australia. This is a far more flexible and workable approach than Kyoto. Rather than ratcheting down emissions with existing technologies-something that Europe is finding to be both elusive and prohibitively expensive-this approach focuses on developing the next generation of energy sources that emit less carbon.  Each nation would determine when and to what extent these technologies should be deployed. 

This emphasis on technology is clear from the upcoming meeting's agenda. Among the topics to be discussed are low-carbon generation of electricity, vehicle and fuel technology, land use, and efficiency improvements.
Critics contend that the non-Kyoto approaches to address climate change are too weak to address the problem, but the track record indicates otherwise. The Kyoto approach of curtailing  emissions-through onerous international regulation and multilateral treaties with arbitrary, binding emissions targets-has proven to be imperceptive, inflexible, and ineffectual. The reality is that Kyoto nations are simply not reducing their emissions. By contrast, emissions in the United States actually declined by 1.3 percent in 2006, a decline unmatched by most countries bound by Kyoto.[3] One year of declining emissions does not a trend make, but evidence is emerging that that the flexible approach of the Bush Administration is more effective that the ineffective, if not counterproductive, Kyoto approach.

Of course, an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol is an improvement only if it avoids Kyoto's pitfalls. Such an approach must build upon realistic commitments that countries are able and willing to meet; must not undermine market-led economic growth and development; and must be flexible enough to adapt to new evidence on climate change and new technologies or strategies to address acknowledged problems. The agenda for the Major Economies Meeting on Energy Security and Climate Change seems consistent with these principles. To the extent it avoids the pitfalls of Kyoto, the agenda coming forth from the meeting deserves the support of not only those concerned about climate change, but also those concerned about the impacts of ill-advised climate change policy.

Ben Lieberman is Senior Policy Analyst in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation. Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] United Nations, "The Future in our Hands: Addressing the Leadership Challenge of Climate Change," September 24, 2007, at



[2] The White House, "Invitee List to Meeting of Major Economies on Energy Security and Climate Change," August 3, 2007, at

[3] U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration, U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Energy Sources: 2006 Flash Estimate, May 2007, at; European Environment Agency, Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trends and Projections in Europe 2006, pp. 17-22, at




Brett Schaefer

Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center

Ben Lieberman
Ben Lieberman

Former Senior Policy Analyst, Energy and Environment Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies