TOPICS : Taking stock as Kyoto takes effect

Todd Stern:

After a seven-year Perils-of-Pauline journey to ratification, the famous and infamous Kyoto Protocol on global climate change took effect. How important an accord is it likely to be? Kyoto’s entry into force is undeniably a substantial achievement. Global warming, after all, poses an enormous risk of heat-induced natural disasters in the decades ahead. The effort to limit global warming is an immense undertaking that requires countries to reduce their use of fossil fuels and thus affects their economies.

Kyoto’s contribution lies first in the agreement of most industrial countries to accept a mandatory cap on their greenhouse gas emissions — on average, a 5 per cent cut below 1990 levels by 2012 — and second in its inclusion of innovative, US-proposed measures, such as the trading of emission permits, to dramatically lower the cost of emission cuts.

During the US-Europe-Japan negotiation that consumed the last several days of the Kyoto talks in December 1997, there was intense debate over how large an emission cut to require, but this debate was not nearly as vital as it seemed at the time. The real point of Kyoto was never the size of these first emission cuts, but rather the setting of an initial price on carbon, thereby forcing businesses and consumers to start considering greater energy efficiency and lower-carbon energy sources. But Kyoto has not lived up to its original promise.

First, it never should have taken this long to bring it into force. The Europeans bear some of the burden for this delay: At the Kyoto meeting itself, and during the next three years of negotiations, they resisted US proposals to cut costs, arguing that the US should be restricted in its reliance on measures like trading emissions permits, even though such measures ensure the biggest environmental bang for the buck. Eventually the EU came around, but not until after squandering three years in which more progress could have been made.

Second, Kyoto suffers from the absence of the US — by far the world’s largest emitter. President Bush had a great opportunity to confound critics by endorsing Kyoto conditionally — pressing for changes that could have addressed industry’s concern about issues like the uncertainty of the price tag. Instead, he tossed the treaty overboard. Ever since, he has pursued a do-nothing climate policy of modest research and little action, ignoring alarm bells from the EPA, the National Academy of Sciences, the eight-nation Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, even the Pentagon. In doing so, he surely puts his own legacy, not to mention our children, at risk.

Unless and until the US gets off the sidelines, it is unlikely that its competitors will commit to a new round of emissions cuts. Nor is there any sign that developing countries would consider even specially tailored commitments, and they certainly won’t if the US isn’t participating. The question raised by the struggle to negotiate the protocol and bring it into effect is whether the pursuit of global environmental agreements like Kyoto is the right strategy for tackling existential problems like climate change.

What is clear is that the US needs to develop additional approaches relying on national, bilateral, and multilateral action. Kyoto should be regarded as an important start. We need concerted action without delay. — The Christian Science Monitor