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Killing Kyoto

By Sam Parry
July 18, 2001

The nations of the world are assembling in Bonn, Germany, for more talks on global warming. But many observers believe the Bush administration has gone beyond opting out of the Kyoto Protocol and is now intent on killing the agreement outright.

Despite George W. Bush's "outreach" trip to Europe last month, the rift is growing between the United States and the European nations over how to address the problem of rising greenhouse-gas emissions.

Central to the tensions has been Bush's decision to renounce U.S. participation in the Kyoto agreement and its restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions. But observers say the Bush administration has worsened those tensions by seeming to break a pledge, made by Bush during his trip to Europe, not to otherwise hinder implementation of Kyoto.

At issue is whether the U.S. pressured Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during his trip to Washington last week. If the Bush administration offered the Japanese a deal to join the U.S. in abandoning the Kyoto agreement – possibly by dangling economic incentives – that would be a violation of Bush's pledge.

A Virtual Veto

A deal between the U.S. and Japan could be a death knell to Kyoto. Under the agreement's terms, it cannot begin implementation until 90 days after at least 55 countries representing at least 55 percent of the global-warming emissions ratify it. That means opposition from countries producing 45 percent of the emissions can kill the treaty. [See text of Kyoto Protocol at http://www.unfccc.de/resource/docs/convkp/kpeng.html]

Since the U.S. – the largest greenhouse-gas emitter – represents about 36 percent of those emissions and Japan represents another 8.5 percent, the two countries together wield a virtual veto, with 44.5 percent. [Reuters, 7/15/01, http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20010715/wl/environment_dc_1.html

The Europeans would need to get almost every other country to ratify, including Russia, which represents another 10 percent of the world's carbon-dioxide emissions. [Reuters, July 16, 2001, http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20010716/wl/environment_dc_6.html, and the U.S. Energy Information Agency, http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/tbla9_a16.html]

As the world's biggest polluter, the U.S. is both declining to commit itself to any measurable steps to curb emissions while making it more difficult for the rest of the world to move forward. Early reports from Bonn indicate that the Europeans are deeply troubled by Bush's actions.

G-8 Plan

Another example of the widening gap between the U.S. and the Europeans on energy issues came last weekend when the Bush administration announced its opposition to a proposal commissioned by the Group of Eight (the seven major industrial nations plus Russia) to promote nonpolluting energy sources.

The proposal seeks to transfer taxpayer subsidies over time from fossil-fuel energy sources to renewable-energy sources with the goal of providing one billion people around the world access to clean energy.

The Bush administration objects because it wants to see private industry lead the way in developing renewable energy sources. "We are more interested in looking at how to leverage private sector efforts," an unnamed administration official told The New York Times. [NYT, July 14, 2001]

But this statement ignores the reality that the World Bank and other taxpayer-financed lending institutions already lend hundreds of millions of dollars every year to develop fossil-fuel energy sources. The G-8 proposal, which had been viewed by many as a potential rallying point for establishing a modest agreement among the member countries over energy issues, would merely shift these subsidies from fossil-fuel projects to renewable-energy ones.

Indeed, far from representing a set of radical ideas, the proposal was developed by a task force made up of government officials, including U.S. representatives, and leaders from the business community as well as some environmental groups. One of the co-chairmen of the task force was Mark Moody Stuart, chairman of the oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.

By rejecting this proposal, the administration is sending another signal that it does not want to invest significantly in renewable energy, despite public rhetoric to the contrary. Domestic budget cuts in clean energy and fuel-efficiency programs – and now the rejection of this international plan – indicate a reluctance to move forward in any meaningful way on renewables.

Pro-Oil

It also represents a philosophy of supporting the "right kind" of government subsidies, those that benefit the fossil-fuel industry at the expense of investments in clean energy. To many of the Europeans, Bush's position is less anti-government than it is pro-oil.

While opposing various international initiatives, the Bush administration has done little to fulfill its promise to find an alternative to the Kyoto Protocol, beyond promoting more scientific study of global warming.

Bush said his strategy, including a $120 million NASA research project, is "designed to increase our scientific understanding of climate change, to tap the enormous promise of technology in addressing greenhouse gas emissions and to promote further cooperation on climate change with our partners in the Western Hemisphere and beyond."

To the rest of the world, the science on global warming may still be rough around the edges on some aspects of the problem, but nevertheless points clearly to a real and discernable impact from human activity on the temperature of the planet.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of scientists proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to study global warming, has issued a series of reports detailing not only the human impact on the world’s temperature, but also potential consequences of this temperature rise. Thirteen years later, President Bush’s response to these reports has so far been to call for more reports.

Benign to Apocalyptic

While scientists still disagree about the consequences of global warming – from relatively benign to apocalyptic – they are in broad agreement that global warming is occurring and that human activity is an important contributing factor.

Before his trip to Europe in June, Bush asked the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the global-warming research compiled to date. The NAS reported back to the president that global warming is a serious problem with already measurable effects.

The NAS report followed a joint editorial published in the journal Science in May signed by scientific academies from 17 countries. The editorial stated support for "the IPCC's conclusion that it is at least 90 percent certain that temperatures will continue to rise, with average global surface temperatures projected to increase by between 1.4 degrees and 5.8 degrees Celsius above 1990 levels by 2100."

The editorial went on to warn that, "This increase will be accompanied by rising sea levels; more intense precipitation events in some countries and increased risk of drought in others; and adverse effects on agriculture, health and water balance."

The academies that signed the editorial include the Royal Society of Canada, the Royal Society in the United Kingdom, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (which awards the Nobel prizes) and their counterparts in Australia, Brazil, Belgium, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, New Zealand and Turkey.

'Fatally Flawed'

While European leaders, scientific panels and much of the rest of the world have decided that global warming is too serious a threat to ignore, the Bush administration has chosen to oppose and even obstruct Kyoto, the principal international mechanism for addressing the problem.

Bush has termed Kyoto "fatally flawed" because it treats developing nations differently than it does developed ones and because, he contends, the mandatory greenhouse-gas reductions would hurt the U.S. economy.

At its core, Bush's position represents a political judgment. It is a calculation that the American people are unwilling to make sacrifices for an important cause – even one that could determine the future of the world's climate.

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