Some Countries Begin to Wise Up About the Kyoto Climate Change Treaty

Commentary by Pete du Pont

In March 2001, President Bush pronounced the Kyoto Protocol for the control of greenhouse gas emissions "fundamentally flawed." Among the shortcomings cited by Bush were that the CO2 emission reductions required under the treaty would have little or no effect on global warming but would cause serious harm to the U.S.'s already weakened economy. Because of these flaws, Bush declared that the Protocol was unacceptable to the United States.

Bush did not make his decision lightly. Rather, he only acted after careful consideration of a range of studies showing that meeting emission reductions required under the Kyoto Protocol could reduce U.S. gross domestic product 2 to 5 percent while providing little environmental benefit.

Many world leaders, especially the heads of European Union nations, were dismayed by the U.S. decision. They vowed to finalize the unfinished details of the treaty and push for ratification by the participating countries.

Despite the appearance of solidarity among the more than 160 countries "committed" to completing the treaty, several nations, including, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia, voiced concerns similar to the U.S.'s about a number of treaty provisions. Indeed, even though Australia's greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to increase under the Kyoto Protocol, less than a month after President Bush announced the U.S.'s withdrawal, Australia's environment minister Robert Hill said that Australia would not ratify the protocol if the U.S. did not.

United Nations and European Union diplomats lobbied hard to keep other nations in the agreement and to win Australia's continued support. Their efforts seem to pay-off when, in October 2001, newspaper headlines around the world announced, in the words of the Washington Post, "160 Nations Agree to a Warming Pact." The Post continued, "more than 160 nations, including Great Britain, Japan and Russia, reached agreement late last night on a groundbreaking climate control treaty setting mandatory targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

However, there was more smoke than fire behind the headlines. In order to keep Russia in the treaty the negotiators allowed it to count all of its forests as carbon sinks (i.e., trees absorb carbon as fuel thus removing it from the atmosphere) reducing its mandatory carbon emission cuts to almost nil. In addition, Canadian negotiators successfully pushed for the inclusion of a "clean development mechanism," whereby countries can reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that they must cut at home by developing greenhouse gas reducing energy and building projects overseas. Environmentalists were outraged.

When the negotiations to finalize the details of the Protocol finally ended in Marrakech , Morocco in November 2001, many critical questions remained unanswered. For instance, the treaty called for an emissions trading scheme but failed to specify how the caps would be set, what levels they would be set at and how the trading system would function. In addition, the kinds of economic sanctions that nations can impose on countries that do not meet their specified emission reductions remain unspecified.

After the Marrakech negotiations, many world leaders for the first time began to analyze the economic impacts of the treaty upon their countries, and like President Bush, they didn't like what they saw. Japan - the country where the Protocol was drafted -, is the third largest producer of greenhouse gasses. It is also, like much of the world, mired in an economic slump. Various analyses show that Japan would have to cut emissions more than 14 percent in order to meet their treaty targets. Realizing that this would require a dramatic reduction in energy use which would only further punish their already battered economy, the Japanese government has decided to post-pone, indefinitely, mandatory emissions reduction. Instead, they will pursue voluntary emission reductions - in other words, business as usual.

And Japan is not alone in questioning the wisdom of implementing the Kyoto Protocol. Canada has calculated that to meet the terms of the Protocol it would have to cut emissions by more than 20 percent from their current value. In response to this finding, Canada's Minister of Industry has said that Canada must do nothing that would "handcuff our capacity to compete around the world and with the United States." And of late, government ministers in New Zealand, and even in Germany and Italy - both stalwart members of the European Union which has been leading the charge to adopt the Protocol - have questioned their countries' abilities to meet the terms of the Protocol without courting economic ruin.

The Kyoto Protocol was DOA. President Bush was simply the first to pronounce it dead. The sooner other countries recognize its demise, the sooner the international community can begin exploring alternatives to draconian energy reductions as a means of responding to climate change whatever its cause.