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Misleading on Kyoto

By Sam Parry
July 2, 2001

George W. Bush has launched a summer offensive to sell his energy plan. His revamped sales pitch makes some concessions to conservationists, with Bush saying his staff should "set an example" by turning off lights when they leave their offices and by trimming other unnecessary electrical use.

But Bush's basic approach remains the same: a political calculation that Americans demand plentiful supplies of energy and see little that is more important than their own convenience. Bush's friends in the energy industry – who supported his campaign in 2000 – also can do very well meeting that consumer demand.

From the first days of his administration, Bush has been hewing to this energy strategy of seeking new supplies and cutting environmental regulations. In so doing, his rhetoric has elevated what looks like narrow self-interest into a defense of the American way of life. He's argued, too, that the U.S. is the victim here.

One of the signature decisions of Bush's young administration was his unilateral repudiation of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. Bush rejected this international agreement as “fatally flawed.” He attacked it on the grounds that it “exempts” developing nations, such as China and India, and puts too heavy a burden on the U.S. economy.

Beyond that, Bush questioned the quality of the science behind the global-warming concerns. He claimed that the causes of global warming require more study before the U.S. commits itself to mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Bush chided European leaders for not having ratified the treaty negotiated in 1997.

On Saturday, Bush's advisers saw a victory in Bush's success in softening the pro-Kyoto position of Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi during a U.S.-Japan summit. "I'm glad to see Japan joining us in taking that position," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham on Fox News.

Ironically, Bush's role in lobbying Koizumi against Kyoto -- and pushing for voluntary efforts to curb global warming -- coincided with an Energy Department report that voluntary efforts have failed to halt the rise in U.S. emissions of carbon-dioxide gases that are considered a principal cause of global warming. The report found that carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S. jumped 2.7 percent last year.

According to the department's Energy Information Administration, the U.S. produced 1.56 billion metric tons of carbon from fuel burning in 2000, or 41 million metric tons more than in 1999.

American Lifestyles

Yet, as Bush’s summer offensive for his pro-supply energy policy begins, he may unwittingly be confronting Americans with a different kind of challenge.

The Bush energy push might start Americans thinking about the larger question of whether their country should continue to drag its heels in the fight to prevent the environmental calamity that global warming poses – or whether the United States should take the lead in protecting the planet.

At the center of this emerging debate is still the Kyoto treaty, which European leaders and environmentalists around the world view as a vital framework for curbing global warming. Kyoto’s defenders argue that Bush’s depiction of the treaty is misleading and deceptive. They maintain that the treaty does not victimize the U.S., nor does it give unreasonable breaks to developing nations.

For one, these defenders note, the United States does not face the most stringent requirements for reducing emissions under the treaty. Europe does.

While the treaty mandates a U.S. reduction of 7 percent below 1990 emission levels, the European Union would be required to cut emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels. Europe has accepted this slightly higher percentage cutback though the U.S. is far ahead in per-capita carbon-dioxide emissions.

The per-capita emission rate of carbon dioxide is 2 times higher in the U.S. than in all of Europe, excluding the former Soviet Union, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In other words, Europe is cutting from a lower-emission level.

Individually, Europeans also have adopted a far more aggressive approach toward energy conservation. In their daily lives, for instance, they have made bicycle travel a common form of transportation, rearranging many urban roads to include bicycle lanes. Europe is pressing ahead, too, by integrating non-polluting energy sources, such as windmills and solar panels, into their energy grids. They also pay substantially more than Americans for gasoline.

Another Bush argument is off the mark, too. While he claims that developing countries are “exempt” from the Kyoto treaty, the truth is that they are simply not bound by the same mandatory emission reductions as developed countries. Instead, the Kyoto Protocol establishes a “Clean Development Mechanism” for developing states.

That mechanism allows developing countries to participate in the global effort to reduce emissions in two ways. The first encourages the affordable transfer of new energy technologies from wealthier countries to poorer countries, so they can expand their economies using clean energy. The goal is to break the old pattern of economic development that is dependent on burning fossil fuels and to replace it with a new framework for economic growth, one that minimizes pollution.

This is a win-win-win scenario letting countries like China develop their economies while keeping their emissions low – and creating customers for technological advances produced by developed countries like the U.S.

Ecosystem Support

Kyoto also encourages developing countries to preserve and restore their forests as a way to promote the absorption of greenhouse gases by plants in natural ecosystems. The idea is to turn forests into greenhouse gas “sinks,” which would make some developing countries net greenhouse gas consumers, rather than net emitters.

Besides curbing global warming, this strategy would preserve biodiversity and make environments in poorer countries healthier. In return for preserving and restoring natural forests, developing countries would receive emission credits that could be sold to developed countries to help them meet their emission levels. [For more details, see Union of Concerned Scientists]

The Kyoto Protocol envisions, too, future modifications that could bring the developing countries under the mandatory provisions in the future. Article 3, Paragraph 6 states that “a certain degree of flexibility shall be allowed by the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to this Protocol to the Parties included in Annex I undergoing the process of transition to a market economy.”

In other words, the Kyoto Protocol recognizes the special challenges developing countries face and provides for “flexibility” that can adjust to conditions as their economies mature.

Rather than Kyoto representing a kind of conspiracy against the U.S., this flexibility was intended to let vulnerable developing countries – new democracies evolving out of the former Soviet bloc, for instance – build their economies and political systems. The drafters of the Kyoto agreement did not want to contribute to economic and political instability around the world.

The flexibility envisioned by the Kyoto Protocol also appears to be working. China – the Bush administration's poster boy for its case against Kyoto – has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions more rapidly than anyone dreamed possible, according to recent reports.

 “China's annual output of carbon dioxide in the last four years of rapid economic growth has actually declined, according to data compiled by the United States Department of Energy,” The New York Times reported on June 15, 2001.

The article quoted an April report from researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, saying that “China's emissions of carbon dioxide have shrunk by 17 percent since the mid-1990s. Remarkably, over the same period, G.D.P. (China's gross domestic product) grew by 36 percent.”

The report concludes, “Even without undertaking binding commitments under an international agreement [China] has nevertheless contributed substantially to reducing growth in global emissions.” The findings suggest that China's experience could lead the way to developing countries accepting mandatory emissions standards in the near future.


The pattern of developed nations showing leadership on an international agreement and developing nations joining later also is not unprecedented.

Negotiated during the Reagan administration, the 1987 Montreal Protocol to curb ozone depletion “applied first to industrial powers, with China and India being granted a grace period of 10 years,” according to Andrew C. Revkin, science writer for the New York Times. [NYT, June 16, 2001]

Revkin notes, too that the Kyoto Protocol was a follow-up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the first climate treaty negotiated by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

George W. Bush's remaining anti-Kyoto argument is that the science is fuzzy. Yet, this contention is possibly the weakest link in Bush's brief against the protocol.

A week before Bush's June trip to Europe, the National Academy of Sciences produced a report that was requested by the administration. The report concluded that the science in many other studies from around the world was well-founded – that global warming is real, it's underway and human activity contributes to the problem with the burning of fossil fuels "the primary source" of higher global temperatures and more greenhouse gases.

Bush's response to the study has been to argue that more study is necessary.

Instead of leadership on global warming, Bush has chosen to mislead. He has mixed up a political brew of "national-interest unilateralism" and some sound bites portraying the U.S. as the victim of a conspiracy aimed at destroying the American way of life.

Rather than come to grips with the peril that global warming could bring to the world – both through economic dislocation and political chaos – he has chosen to score debating points against European governments over their delays in ratifying the Kyoto treaty.

Perhaps as troubling is what Bush's strategy says about his estimation of the American people. He seems to think that Americans care only about their own comfort, have a minimal capacity for complex thought, and have little concern for the quality of life they will leave behind for their children and their children's children.

Bush thinks the American people won't make even modest sacrifices to save the planet.

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