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World: Is The Kyoto Protocol The Solution To Global Warming?

  • Alexandra Poolos

At their summit meeting in Sweden today, the United States and the European Union formally recognized their disagreement over the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. In a joint statement, U.S. President George W. Bush and the leaders of the 15 EU nations said they agreed greenhouse gas emissions were a "pressing issue" and that they would continue their dialogue. To many analysts, global warming indeed appears to be a real problem, but some say the document signed in Kyoto in 1997 -- which Bush has repudiated -- might not be the solution. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos presents the pros and cons of the controversial treaty.

Prague, 14 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Many scientists believe that global warming caused by the emission of greenhouse gases is the most difficult environmental problem now facing the international community. They say that earlier environmental problems involved relatively small sums of money and usually focused narrowly on particular industries. But tackling global warming, they argue, will affect the entire industrial world's economy, because it will involve a reorientation away from carbon-based fossil fuels. That would mean huge changes that would be impossible to make quickly.

What makes the global warming problem especially hard to manage is that its solution must be truly international. Because the emissions of gases mix around the world, every country's welfare depends on the actions of other countries.

The Kyoto Protocol, which binds nations to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases, was signed in 1997. Former Vice President Al Gore, who helped draft the document, signed for the United States. Four years later, the Kyoto Protocol was dealt a severe blow by the man who defeated Gore for the U.S. presidency, George W. Bush. Soon after he took office, Bush repudiated the U.S. allegiance to the treaty, saying the country could not make severe cuts in emissions without harming its economy.

West European nations, in particular, responded to Bush's move with a storm of criticism. But in fact, with the exception of Romania, no European country has ratified the protocol. And only two of them -- Britain and Germany -- are even close to their Kyoto emissions targets.

The Kyoto Protocol calls for industrialized nations to reduce their average national emissions over the period from 2008 to 2012 to about 5 percent below 1990 levels. None of the developing countries, including those with large and growing emissions -- such as India and China -- is required to limit its emissions levels. The protocol is broader than previous agreements because it includes all major greenhouse gases and takes into account emissions changes resulting from alterations in forest- and land-use patterns.

The protocol also contains the elements of a program for international trading of greenhouse gas emissions, in which nations with high emissions can buy credits from nations with low emissions.

The Bush administration calls the protocol unfair because it calls for sharp reductions in emissions over a relatively short time. Implementing deep emissions cuts over a short period of time is far more expensive than a long-term plan.

David Victor of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank, says that the chief cause of the treaty's rejection by the Bush administration lies in what he calls its "architecture," which sets out ambitious targets but takes little account of the costs of compliance.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Victor said that Bush was right to repudiate the treaty.

"[The] central problem with the protocol right now is that the targets can be achieved by some countries, especially in Europe, whereas other countries -- like the United States -- can't meet the targets. For the United States, this presents a serious problem, because there's no way the U.S. could ratify a treaty unless it could have a viable plan for complying with the targets."

Victor says that the entire treaty needs to be overhauled to allow emissions reductions over longer periods of time, needed by many industries that use fossil fuels. "What is needed is not only to adjust the targets -- so the United States could get a target that it would actually have a chance of complying with -- but also the whole architecture of the treaty needs to be adjusted so the targets apply over longer periods of time rather than shorter periods of time. The reason for this is that most of the emissions of greenhouse gases are caused by the consumption of fossil fuels. And most of the technologies that drive fossil fuel consumption have a very long lifetime. Automobiles last 15 years on average. Power plants last 20, 30, 40 years. Homes and factories sometimes last even longer than that."

Victor says the Bush administration is going to be under great pressure to work with Europe and Japan to revise the Kyoto Protocol. He says the Europeans won't tolerate throwing out the treaty entirely, but that it may be possible to reform the basic system.

A spokesman for the environmental group Greenpeace International, Lorenzo Consoli, makes the case for not changing the Kyoto Protocol. Consoli says that it is the only international agreement to fight global warming:

"The Kyoto Protocol is the only legally binding instrument that we have with the timing and measures that have to be taken to reduce emissions. It is the first step, but it is a first step in the right direction and we absolutely have to stick with it."

Consoli says that the emission reductions required by Kyoto are actually quite small. He say all nations can achieve the plan's goals.

"It [the protocol] is not enough. It is actually a very small step. But it is realistic. It is something that has been agreed [upon] by 160 nations. It is a legally binding instrument. It has timing. It requires reductions of a mere 5 percent of the industrialized countries. This is between 2008 and 2012, so it's time [enough] to put into place all kinds of measures to achieve this objective. The Americans are saying that this is not realistic, that this is not good. But this is just an excuse for them to keep doing what the oil companies and the fossil fuels lobbyists want them to do."

Consoli says that if the world abandons Kyoto, then new negotiations will have to begin, a process that could take years. By that time, he believes, climate change will get worse and the costs of fighting global warming will be much more expensive.

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