Better than Kyoto: Climate Stability Bonds - Social Policy Bonds

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Better than Kyoto: Climate Stability Bonds


This is a slightly edited version of an article that appeared in Economic Affairs, 22 (3), September 2002, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, London: click here for a link to the journal. This article is about 3000 words: a shorter article was published in a New Zealand newspaper, the Dominion. A Powerpoint presentation (ten frames) of a talk about climate change that I gave at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne is available here.

My focus has shifted over the years towards targeting for reduction the negative impacts of climate on plant, animal, and human life. For my recent writings about applying the Social Policy Bond principle to climate change, see posts on my blog: especially this, and these examples from recent years.
My post explaining why I think the December 2015 Paris agreement will fail is here.

A more recent (March 2019) essay suggesting that we issue Environmental Policy Bonds to target all environmental goals, whether or not we now think them to be caused by climate change, can be seen here.

The evidence that the global climate is changing is substantial and growing. That said, scientists are divided as to (a) how fast climate is changing, (b) the effects of climate change (c) how much we can do about it, and (d) how much we should do about it. Despite these uncertainties, climate change has the potential to inflict serious harm on large populations, so there is a strong argument for doing what we can to minimise its adverse effects.

The December 1997 Kyoto treaty (‘Kyoto’) saw 159 nations commit themselves to reduce the global output of carbon dioxide and five other gases thought to contribute to the ‘greenhouse’ effect. Thirty-eight industrialised countries agreed to reduce emissions by 2012 to an average of 5.2 per cent below their 1990 levels, and in July 2001, 180 countries reached a broad political agreement on the operational rules that will govern the Protocol.

The Kyoto targets are far lower than those that some environmentalists had hoped for and that some countries, most notably the European Union, had been advocating. The treaty will slow, but not stop, the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (Carbon dioxide, which is given off by fossil fuel combustion, is thought to be by far the most important of the man-made greenhouse gases that form an insulating blanket around Earth.) Evaluations by leading scientists indicate that Kyoto’s environmental effects may be so small as to be almost unnoticeable. For example, a model by Tom Wigley, one of the main authors of the reports of the UN Climate Change Panel, shows how Kyoto would reduce an expected temperature increase of 2.1°C in 2100 to an increase of 1.9°C instead. Or, to put it another way, the temperature increase that the planet would have experienced in 2094 would be postponed just six years, to 2100 (Economist, 2001).

Such a reduction may be significant as a gesture, or as a first step to more meaningful measures, but most scientists would say that it is far from what is required to reach the goal of stabilising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And some fear that governments will cite the modest cutbacks as an excuse for doing nothing further. Even if all industrialised countries honour their commitments to reduce pollution, the quantity of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to grow. Kyoto does not oblige developing countries to accept binding limits on their emissions in the near future though it does provide for an emissions-trading scheme and other market-based mechanisms to make it easier to comply with its provisions. More technical weaknesses are that Kyoto is largely silent on how to calculate or verify credits for human-induced sink activities, and that it makes no provision for credits for the build-up of a country’s agricultural soil carbon sink.

So Kyoto, in summary, is an agreement that is certainly divisive and is likely to have little chance of success in achieving a significant reduction in greenhouse gases. It will be expensive to administer and will impose large and incalculable costs on the world's economies, especially if its provisions were to be extended to the developing countries.

Kyoto suffers from the same conceit as government approaches to many other environmental and social problems. It embodies the assumption that government knows the best way of achieving its goals. But with climate change the biological and physical relationships involved are many and complex. Even specialists in climatology disagree about the degree to which the multitude of biological and physical variables causes climate change. It would therefore appear to be poor policy to impose expensive controls on certain activities on the basis that they might help bring about a stable climate.

An ideal way of addressing climate change would not embody the assumption that it knows exactly how the Earth’s climate is changing, what is causing it to change, and what is the best way of dealing with any change. It would not ignore a potentially catastrophic problem, but it would try to be as cost-effective as possible, especially because of the colossal expenditures that will inevitably be incurred. An ideal policy would encourage innovative solutions, stimulating the investigation and adoption of promising new technologies, and be open to new information about the causes and effects of climate change. It would most probably seek to constrain the negative effects of climate change, while doing little to discourage positive effects. Ideally too, it would use markets, the best way yet devised of allocating society’s scarce resources, to channel people’s self-interest into the solution of the climate change problem.

If such a solution could be found, it would be bound to attract more support from world leaders, non-governmental organisations, and the public in general than Kyoto. Such support is essential, because any solution is going to entail enormous costs and sacrifices.

Targeting outcomes, not activities: Climate Stability Bonds

Climate Stability Bonds would be a new globally backed, financial instrument, designed to achieve climate stability, rather than to regulate emissions, activities or institutions. These Bonds would be issued on the open market and would become redeemable for a fixed sum only when the climate had achieved an agreed and sustained level of stability. In this way there is no need for the targeting mechanism to make assumptions as to how to stabilise the world climate - that is left to bondholders. Importantly, we could define our 'climate stability' goal not so much in terms of the climate, but more as a reduction or avoidance of the negative impacts of climate on plant, animl and human life.

Normal bonds are redeemable at a fixed date, for a fixed sum, and so yield a fixed rate of interest. Climate Stability Bonds would not bear interest and their redemption date would be uncertain. Bondholders would gain most by ensuring that climate stability is achieved quickly.

Internationally backed Climate Stability Bonds would be issued by open tender, as at an auction; those who bid the highest price for the limited number of Bonds would be successful in buying them. A fixed number of Bonds would be issued, redeemable for, say, £10 million each, only when climate stability, as certified by objective measurements made by independent scientific bodies, has been achieved and sustained. Once issued, the Bonds will be freely tradeable on the free market.

What will determine the price of the Bonds? Most obviously, the market’s assessment of how close climate stability is to being achieved. Interest rates on alternative investments will also be a factor. The Bonds would sell for small fractions of their issue price if people thought there were virtually no chance of climate stability being achieved in their lifetime. People will differ in their valuation of the Bonds, and their views will change as events occur that make achievement of a stable climate a more or less remote prospect. They would also change as new information about climate, and about the causes of climate change, is discovered. But the Bonds, once issued, would be transferable at any time. Bondholders, having done their bit to achieve climate stability, could sell their Bonds, realising the capital gain arising from the higher market price of their Bonds. These market prices would be publicly quoted, just like those of ordinary bonds or shares.

Assume that Climate Stability Bonds, redeemable for £10 million each, have been issued, and that they each sell for £1 million. People, or institutions, now hold an asset that can give them a return of 900 percent once a stable climate has been achieved. It is this prospect of capital gain that gives bondholders a strong interest in bringing about a stable climate, as cost-effectively as possible.

Climate Stability Bonds could be issued by a world body, perhaps one supervised by the United Nations or World Bank. This body would undertake to redeem the Bonds using funds that could perhaps be obtained from all countries, in proportion to their Gross National Product. It would be up to individual countries to decide how to raise funds, presumably from taxation revenue. Importantly though, no Bonds will be redeemed until the objective of a more stable climate has been achieved and sustained.

There are obvious difficulties involved in defining what a stable climate actually is, or what our climate goals actually are, but the same difficulties apply when attempting to monitor the success or otherwise of Kyoto. Presumably scientists will measure the effects of the cuts by monitoring such objectively verifiable indicators as temperature, change in temperature, rate of change of temperature, precipitation, frequency of extreme climatic events, and many other variables, at a wide range of locations. But the focus could also be on the negative impacts of climate change on plant, animal and human life.

What would bondholders do?

How might bondholders aim to accelerate the achievement of a stable climate? They could:

  • help finance countries’ defences against adverse climatic events;

  • subsidise countries or companies to set up carbon sequestration plantations;

  • attempt to increase radiation from the Earth by raising the planet’s albedo;

  • carry out, or subsidise, research into the causes of climate change.

Bondholders can also be expected to finance other climate stabilising initiatives, the precise nature of which we cannot, and need not, know in advance. Of course, governments, research institutes and others are already carrying out many of these activities. But there is a crucial difference. Under a Climate Stability Bond regime, the motivation arises from the self-interest of bondholders, who have the incentive to seek out those ways of achieving a stable climate that will give them the best return on their outlay. Their outlay, of course, is the taxpayers’ outlay. But note that it is only when the targeted degree of climate stability is achieved that governments end up paying for it. Until then, it is bondholders who have to finance the initiatives that they think will achieve climate stability. The issuing body will, in effect, be contracting out the achievement of climate stability to the private sector. It does, though, stipulate the degree of climate stability that it wants, and it does undertake to pay bondholders when the objective has been achieved.

Many will be skeptical that bondholders can actually do anything to combat climate change. It is true that too large a number of small bondholders would probably do little in isolation to bring about climate stability. If there were many such small holders, it is likely that the value of their bonds would fall until there were aggregation of holdings by people or institutions large enough to initiate effective problem-solving projects. As has happened with share privatisation issues, the Bonds would mainly end up in the hands of large holders - probably institutions, brokers, or governments.

Even then, each such body would probably not be big enough, on its own, to achieve much without the cooperation of other bondholders. They might also resist initiating projects until they were assured that other holders would not be ‘free riders’. But note that they will have a strong incentive to cooperate with each other, and to do so as cost-effectively as possible. If they did not, the market value of their Bonds would fall. Their common interest in seeing climate stability achieved quickly means that they would share information, trade Bonds with each other and collaborate on climate-stabilising projects. They would also set up payment systems to ensure that people, bondholders or not, would have an incentive to perform efficiently. Large bondholders, in cooperation with each other, would be able to set up such systems cost-effectively. Governments holding bonds would benefit by enacting legislation aimed at achieving climate stability, while large bondholders could lobby for such legislation, targeting their lobbying energies at those governments who will respond most readily.

Advantages of Climate Stability Bonds

There are two critical advantages that Climate Stability Bonds have over Kyoto. One is that the Bonds do not rely on the robustness of our existing scientific knowledge. Kyoto aims to reduce emissions of a small range of gases. But there may be other causes of climate change or its negative impacts that are far more important, of which we are currently unaware. And these need not be man-made: natural variability of climate has had severe impacts on human life in the past. Kyoto, responding to effects whose causes are uncertain, embodies a limited number of fixed ideas about the nature of the relationships involved. A Bond regime, targeting climate change directly, may well lead to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but it would not assume that doing so is the best solution. Climate Stability Bonds improve on Kyoto because they encourage behaviour leading to the desired outcome, rather than seeking to control activities whose effects on the climate stability are not fully known.

The other major advantage of a Climate Stability Bond regime is that bondholders will support whichever climate stabilising projects will give them the best return for their outlay. These may involve controlling greenhouse gases, but they could also mean furthering research into such ideas as atmospheric mirrors to reflect radiation back into outer space, or genetically engineered cyanobacteria that can soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (New Scientist 1997). The more efficient bondholders are in achieving climate stability the more they will gain from appreciation in the value of their Bonds. This efficiency maximises the degree of climate stability that can be achieved per pound outlay. Because of the colossal sums involved, the benefits that Climate Stability Bonds offer in comparison to activity-based regimes, such as Kyoto, are likely to be huge.

Further advantages of a Bond regime are:

  • the Bonds have considerable informational advantages over such measures as Kyoto, which target activities rather than outcomes. Greenhouse gases are emitted from many sources. About half of carbon dioxide emissions, for instance, come from dispersed sources, such as cars and home heating systems. Immense quantities of information would be needed to establish and monitor a comprehensive system of control using taxes or tradeable emission permits. By contrast, Climate Stability Bonds would target and monitor a much smaller number of global indicators.

  • governments pay up only when a stable climate has been achieved - any risk of failure or of undershooting the climate stability target is borne by bondholders, rather than taxpayers;

  • funds for global climate stability could bypass corrupt or inefficient governments or, by appealing to their financial self-interest (if they were bondholders, or bribed by bondholders) could effectively modify their behaviour in favour of achieving climate stability; and

  • formulating the redemption terms for Climate Stability Bonds will entail clarifying of what is actually wanted. In global terms, climate change - as distinct from climate variability - could actually be a good thing. It could lead to longer growing seasons and higher yields in some regions. Others point to the boost to crop productivity given by higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (Wittwer 1997). ‘Climate Stability’ as targeted by Climate Stability Bonds, could be defined such that bondholders tackle only the negative effects of climate change.

Achieving a stable climate will unquestionably require a wide range of diverse, responsive projects. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions or sequestering carbon may be helpful ways, but they are not necessarily going to be the most cost-effective. Other ways yet to be discovered may be far cheaper. Kyoto is, in my view, deficient, in that it offers no incentives to find out how to achieve a stable climate most cost-effectively. Climate Stability Bonds would encourage the most efficient solutions given the knowledge available at any time, and they would stimulate research into finding ever more cost-effective solutions. This occurs because of the nature of the Bond mechanism, and requires no presupposition as to the optimal set of solutions. Scientists and governments would need to decide only on the objective - climate stability - not on the ways of achieving it.

Of course, the Climate Stability Bond concept involves surrendering of policy instruments to the private sector, and this may be difficult for politicians to swallow, even though, under a Bond regime, they would continue to set, and be the ultimate source of finance for, the targeted objective. But the potential benefits should not be ignored. In economic theory, and on the evidence of recent history, market forces are the most efficient means yet discovered of allocating society’s limited resources. Many believe that market forces inevitably accentuate extremes of wealth and poverty and accelerate the despoliation of the planet. So it is important to remind ourselves that a market economy is consistent with many different outcomes and that market forces can serve public, as well as private, goals. Climate Stability Bonds are intended to channel the market’s incentives and efficiencies into the achievement of society’s overriding environmental objective. By appealing to people’s self-interest, Climate Stability Bonds could be far more effective at achieving climate stability than Kyoto. And by targeting a desired outcome, as against activities or institutions, the Bond concept could show the way to solving other seemingly intractable global problems, including other environmental problems, war, disease and famine.

Ronnie Horesh, December 2001


New Scientist (1997), Beach bugs make for a cooler world, Peter Hadfield, New Scientist, 12 July 1997 (page 17).

Economist (2001), The truth about the environment Bjorn Lomborg, ‘The Economist’, 4 August 2001 (pp71-73).

Wittwer (1997), The great promise of the ‘Greenhouse Effect, Sylvan H Wittwer, Consumers Research, June 1997.


Better than Kyoto: How Climate Stability Bonds can inject market incentives into the achievement of a stable climate, Ronnie Horesh, ISBN 0-595-21164-X, Writers Club Press, USA, January 2002.

Injecting incentives into the solution of social problems: Social Policy Bonds (September 2000), Ronnie Horesh, Economic Affairs, 20 (3), Institute of Economic Affairs, London, UK.

Injecting incentives into the solution of social and environmental problems: Social Policy Bonds (January 2001), Ronnie Horesh, iUniversity Press, USA. ISBN: 0-595-15374-7

‘Investing for the Future’, UK CEED Bulletin No 35 (September-October 1991).

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