TCS Daily


Forget Kyoto

By James K. Glassman - November 28, 2000 12:00 AM

This piece originally appeared in the Editorial section of the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, November 28, 2000.

THE HAGUE -- It was no surprise that negotiations broke down Saturday at the son-of-Kyoto conference on climate change, and it is just as well that they did. The evidence that the global warming recorded since the mid-1970s is anything more than cyclical and natural (rather than worsening and human-caused) remains inconclusive. Moreover, even if the U.S. decides it is good policy to reduce greenhouse gases, why be bound by a global treaty that exempts many of the worst polluters and that is shaped by Europeans with a self-serving agenda? We can go it alone.

I arrived last week at this rainy, gloomy Dutch capital and discovered quickly that the real objective of the Europeans was not to reduce greenhouse emissions world-wide but to inflict economic pain on Americans, curry favor with greenish constituents and emerge with a halo. Like most United Nations conferences, this was a festival for global bureaucrats and interest groups -- a morality play (and a silly one at that) more than a serious negotiation.

Around the convention hall, protesters had piled sandbags six feet high to demonstrate how rising temperatures would cause rising flood waters (another unproven contention). Others carried signs with weird slogans like "Don`t Melt the Penguins." And on Thanksgiving Day, a woman threw a whipped-cream-and-berry pie in the face of Frank Loy, the weary U.S. negotiator. Meanwhile, 225 accredited Greenpeace lobbyists -- who comprised the single largest presence at The Hague -- roamed the hall, heaping scorn on the Americans, especially on the handful of U.S. congressmen who had come to observe.

The reason for the gathering was to flesh out the details of the Kyoto Protocol, drafted by representatives of 170 countries three years earlier. Kyoto required 37 leading industrial countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. None of these developed nations has ratified the treaty so far, and the meeting here was supposed to provide the details so that they could. The big issue was whether countries like the U.S., Australia, Japan and Canada could meet their treaty obligations, not just through reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases, but through other means that are less expensive but achieve the same result.

These other means include "carbon sinks" and "emissions trading." Sinks are forests and farms whose plants suck up carbon dioxide and sequester it, or keep it from getting back into the atmosphere. Emissions trading allows countries that tend to pollute beyond their required levels to buy emissions credits from countries that have reduced their gases below the required levels. The Kyoto Protocol included provisions for sinks and emissions trading, but it did not specify the extent to which each country could use them. The meeting was supposed to spell out the limits.

What doomed the meeting from the start was that the Europeans never intended to let other countries utilize sinks and emissions trading to a useful degree. The Europeans were after something more: an economic edge over the U.S. Without sinks and trading, the U.S. could meet the Kyoto targets only by sharply increasing the price of fossil fuels. Gasoline would rise by 50 cents or more a gallon; the cost of running industrial plants and energy-hungry computers would soar. According to a consensus of projections, the growth of gross domestic product in the U.S. would be cut by more than half as businesses moved offshore to escape the high tax.

The Europeans, meanwhile, rigged the Kyoto game. They have an easier time meeting their targets -- without trading or sinks -- since they are considered one country. And within Europe, huge emissions reductions have already been achieved, especially in eastern Germany and Britain, which, until recently, have been heavily reliant on uneconomic and inefficient power plants and heating.

Yet without more European cooperation, the U.S. isn`t likely to ratify Kyoto. Around the time the protocol was drafted, the U.S. Senate resolved, 95-0, that it would not approve a climate treaty that: 1) did not force developing countries also to cut emissions, and 2) "would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States."

There was no serious discussion at the meeting about developing nations -- even though nine of the top 20 emitters of carbon dioxide (including No. 2 China and No. 6 India) are exempt from the treaty. And while there was lots of talk of harm to the U.S. economy, in the end there was no result. In short, much remains to be done. "If you look at the resolution that passed in 1997, this protocol isn`t even close to being ratified," Sen. Chuck Hagel, the resolution`s co-author, told me.

True, but so what? If the Europeans are as fiercely committed to reducing emissions as they say they are, they can do it themselves. Meanwhile, the U.S. can plant more forests and continue to reduce pollution, as we have been doing for the past quarter-century. As countries get richer, they want to use their wealth to buy cleaner air and water, and the marketplace pressures companies to clean up their environmental act.

Drastic steps that imperil the world economy make no sense -- especially with so much doubt about global warming. That doubt centers not so much on whether the temperatures are rising (though environmental scientist S. Fred Singer, at a sparsely attended press conference here last week, brought together a half-dozen climatologists who made a good claim that the jury is still out), but rather on where the world is warming, by how much and for how much longer.

Then there`s the question of what causes global warming. Of the 160 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere annually, only about seven billion tons are anthropogenic, or human-caused, according to the most recent report of the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That group concluded: "These global mean results. . . cannot be considered as compelling evidence of a clear cause-and-effect link between anthropogenic forcing and changes in the Earth`s surface."

Why risk the world`s economy on such shaky evidence? And why bind the U.S. to a treaty like the one debated here last week -- the first step, according to French President Jacques Chirac, toward "global government"? The Europeans want to give Kyoto another try in May. Forget it. We should take the threat of global warming seriously, but we shouldn`t waste our time on another pie-throwing circus.

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