Do climate targets work?


It is only a small exaggeration to say that climate change policy is dominated by targets. Internationally, the emission reduction commitments of industrialized countries are the cornerstone of the Kyoto Protocol. Agreement on a fresh set of targets is central to a new global deal for after 2012 when the current Kyoto commitments expire.

At the national level, practically all countries that have enacted climate change legislation, and many now have, phrase their climate objectives in terms of targets. This is true for industrialized countries, such as the UK, which has had statutory emission targets since 2008. Increasingly, it is also true for emerging economies such as China, whose latest 5-year plan features both energy- and carbon-intensity targets. It is therefore fair to ask whether emissions targets are indeed an effective way of curtailing emissions.

The short answer is that it depends. There have been notable successes with emissions targets, for example in the UK and to some degree in the EU, where carbon-intensive firms are subject to an emissions cap under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). In contrast, few would argue that the emission reduction targets of the Kyoto Protocol have been an unqualified success.

Targets, it seems, work best at the national and firm level, where they can be enforced through regulatory means. They work less well if they are voluntary or difficult to impose, such as in an international setting.


Fankhauser, S. Do climate targets work? October 2011. Carbon Management, v.2, pp.495-497.