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Why Kyoto and its offshoots harm present and future generations

par Xavier Méra
mardi 24 janvier 2006.

Article published exclusively on the Institut économique Molinari’s website.

It is in Montreal’s autumn crispness that the UN summit on climate warming ended on 9 December. Beyond the implementation of the agreement already established between the 34 signatory countries, aiming at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from now to 2012, the agenda was also concerned with what is next after Kyoto.

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It is in Montreal’s autumn crispness that the UN summit on climate warming ended on 9 December. Beyond the implementation of the agreement already established between the 34 signatory countries, aiming at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from now to 2012, the agenda was also concerned with what is next after Kyoto. Supporters of the protocol agree that it is only the first step and that climate warming requires a stronger political response. Restrictions already adopted would be insufficient. However, it is not forbidden to question the relevance of the principles guiding such proposals.

Restrictive policies are generally defended without regard to their cost, along the line of the precautionary principle. Indeed, when it is claimed “that in the event of a risk threat of serious or irreversible damage, the absence of absolute certainty should not be used as a pretext to postpone the adoption of effective measures aiming at preventing further environmental damage" [1], it is not considered that the restrictions thus defended have a price. Their benefit appears to be obvious then since it is made out that there is nothing to lose in taking the "precaution."

There is however something to lose in applying the Kyoto protocol, extending it or reinforcing it. The activities aimed at by the protocol are not undertaken for the simple pleasure of emitting gas but to serve the production processes of many goods and services. The restrictions of emissions thus necessarily imply a reduction in the availability of these goods for consumers. In other words, in the name of a possible future worsening of living conditions, one must accept right now a decrease in current standards of living. This is the hidden cost of "precaution."

The interest of restrictions cannot thus be evaluated only in view of their supposed benefits. As for any other choice, the compulsory restriction of greenhouse gas emissions has advantages and disadvantages. But what are the expected advantages ? The assumptions retained by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, assumptions made authoritative in the intergovernmental negotiations, maintain that the application of the Kyoto protocol would only allow the reporting of temperature increase over several years, a 6-year report in the event of a rise of 2°C [2] during the time lag of the next hundred year. Thus, the climatic impact of the protocol application would be very weak for the next generations and invisible for ours.

We thus have to deal with proposals whose application requires an immediate and certain impoverishment of populations which are subjected to it, in order to obtain a marginal and dubious advantage for future generations. However, even this supposed advantage should cause a certain scepticism with regard to the support of current restrictions. Just as the standard of living of the present generation depends on the accumulated efforts of former generations, the standard of living of future generations will also be based on heritage. The less they will be able to benefit from the productive efforts of today, the more they will be impoverished and the less well armed they will be to face climatic risks. A raft will be less likely to remain afloat in a storm than a steamer, tomorrow just as today.

Xavier Méra is an Associated Researcher at the Molinari Economic Institute.

[1] It is the definition of the principle of precaution enacted at the time of the UN conference on biological diversity in Rio (1992).
[2] Cf. Bjorn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Cambridge University Press (2001).



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Institut économique Molinari
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