A crowd of people set out to catch a train. The train had already left some time ago but was moving quite slowly, though steadily. It was still possible to catch the train if everyone ran. It was vital that they caught the train as disaster was chasing them. Also, no-one could get on the train unless everyone did.
They worked out at the start how fast they all had to run to make it. They set targets for how close they would be in five years. But people didn’t run that fast. Some walkied, some said “I will pay others to run faster so I don’t have to”. Others sat down for a rest. Still others wandered backwards because they didn’t believe the disaster was really coming.
At the end of the five years they discussed again how fast they had to run to catch the train which had now disappeared over the horizon. If they had all run at the speed they agreed five years ago they would now be much closer to the train.They argued. “You sat down for a rest, so you have to run much faster now”. “No, I can only start from where I am. I will run a little faster than I have been and that should be good enough.”
And so their running targets all changed, to reflect the fact that they had only walked or sat down. A few caught up with the train but they couldn’t get on because the others were far behind.
If parties had met the targets in the Kyoto Protocol the reduction we need now for developed countries wouldn’t be 25-40%, but 20-35%. Instead, countries like NZ have to undo the 23% emissions increase since 1990 before they can count any reduction. Canada, the most recalcitrant of the developed countries had a bright idea – let’s measure our next targets against 2006 emissions. That gave the US the chance to say “We will reduce by 17%”- which is only 3% below 1990. But the climate doesn’t reset the clock at each COP. And the train has disappeared over the horizon.