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Kyoto or No-Go?

By Brian Livingston - March 1, 2002 12:00 AM

BERLIN -- Almost 100 of Germany's political intelligentsia crowded into a restaurant here on Feb. 28 to witness a debate between some very American and some very European ideas about energy use and environmental protection.

The cordial but heated arguments pitted James K. Glassman, the host of Tech Central Station, against Ernst-Ulrich von Weizscker, a member of the German parliament and director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy in Bonn.

The event, organized by the Aspen Institute -- a Berlin nonprofit supported by numerous foundations and corporate sponsors -- attracted an audience keenly interested in whether the U.S. and European countries should sign the Kyoto Protocol, the proposed international treaty that would limit carbon dioxide emissions. Sitting in the audience for the debate and the private dinner that followed were:
  • Julius Georg Luy, the German Foreign Office's commissioner for environmental issues;
  • David Nelson, the U.S. Embassy's minister-counselor for economic affairs;
  • Georg Riegel, head of environmental research for DaimlerChrysler;
  • Boris Lazar, the Czech ambassador to Germany;


Also attending were a host of politically involved staffers of various governmental bodies and private organizations.

Looking around the room, one could feel a bit of energy in the atmosphere, as it were, because the speakers openly acknowledged that those in attendance were likely to favor stronger regulations, not more free market advocacy.

In this milieu, Glassman launched the debate by illustrating why he feels Kyoto is a no-go for economic growth as well as the environment.

"There's a direct, close, and logical connection between a healthy economy and a clean environment," Glassman said.

He cited a recent World Bank study that shows that pollution increases as the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country rises, but only until a certain standard of living is reached. "It goes down at around a per-capita income of $5,000," he said. This level is one-sixth the per-capita income of the United States, typical of developing nations such as Chile.
 


The evidence, Glassman continued, is that wealthier countries can afford to control pollution rather than producing more of it. He pointed to lead emissions, which have declined 95% in the U.S. in recent years.

"To improve the world's environment, we need to encourage the world's economic growth," Glassman concluded. To do this, he advised that governments should leave energy policy alone, encourage free trade that allows poor countries to sell their goods to rich countries, and stimulate direct aid to developing nations.

Weizscher replied that severe climate changes were in store for the world within this century unless the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to reduce annual carbon emissions 60% to 70% from current levels, is enforced.
 


"There is likely to be a warming of 2 to 5 degrees C. [4 to 9 degrees F.] over the next few decades," Weizscher said. "This will be very scary for places like Florida" and several other lowlands where a small rise in ocean levels would inundate populated areas. "The disaster that may happen at the end of the 21st century is being laid down now."

Weizscher said prudent people follow what he called the Precautionary Principle: if an insurer wouldn't insure the risk, it's too high for a reasonable businessperson to bet on.

Even the Kyoto Protocol "is much too weak to really deal with the climate challenge," Weizscher asserted. "It is not responsible to advocate that more use of energy leads to more prosperity and that leads to less pollution. That's too simplistic."

Glassman rebutted that the Precautionary Principle itself "isn't really scientific," saying it ignores the cost of the Kyoto Protocol, around $300 billion annually. "That's enough money to cure malaria in a single year," Glassman said. He added that this health breakthrough alone would save 3,000 deaths per day, substantially improving the economic condition of the affected countries.

The debate didn't result in any kind of compromise or common position. And similar debates now being conducted in conference rooms around the world may or may not result in any agreements, either. However it offered a rare but badly needed opportunity for Europeans and Americans to begin bridging differences on climate change questions.
 
Brian Livingston (http://brianlivingston.com) has published 10 books and is a contributing editor of InfoWorld Magazine.
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