BY MOST assessments, the Kyoto Protocol has been a failure.  Five years ago, on February 16th, the international agreement became legally active and ratified.  Yet emissions have risen substantially even in countries that are parties to the Protocol.


Four of the world's top five emitters (the U.S., China, India and Russia) who are not included in the treaty, have not ratified it, or are not subject to substantial limitations. The Kyoto Protocol however attempted to establish a system of monetized assets or emissions quotas and distribute them across countries without any ability to enforce the rules.

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Kyoto was built on a philosophy of broad international engagement on topics requiring coordinated collective action -- a movement which matured at the 1992 Rio Conference, and with some limited success in the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone-depleting substances.


It is one product of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which establishes a governance structure within which the full set of countries can discuss how climate change concerns them. Such a basic mechanism will be essential as the global community wrestles with large societal questions about defining how much climate risk is reasonable and how to share the burden equitably.


From this wider perspective, the enthusiasm for addressing global environmental problems through international agreements is shaken. The search for a better approach remains.


The results would show that the international climate policy is not a simple matter of making all countries agree to reduce emissions by some percent by some date; rather it is a broad set of linked regulatory initiatives, spanning multiple agencies and levels of government, that seek to harmonize decision making according to a set of consistent guiding principles over long time scales.


International climate policy therefore must address not just aggregate emissions from individual countries, but also international technology policy, innovation, development, public health, natural hazards mitigation and adaptation to expected climate changes.


Kyoto is one particularly ambitious approach to multilateral governance, but it is just one among many possibilities. The question raised by Kyoto is not about the goals, but about the best process by which these components can be most efficiently addressed.  Email comments to