TCS Daily

America Against the World?

By Nick Schulz - February 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Some things end at their beginning.
Russell Seitz

The global treaty designed to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that result from energy use, called the Kyoto Protocol, goes into effect Wednesday without the participation of the United States. The lack of American participation is of great concern for the treaty's supporters since the United States is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in part because it is far and away the largest economy in the world.

The critics of the U.S. position claim that, by not participating, America is putting a thumb in the eye of the rest of the planet. As Laurie David of the Detroit Project, a pro-Kyoto group, wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week, "It's hard to overstate just how out of step the United States is with the rest of the world."

But the truth is a little more complicated. At the most recent meeting of the participants to the Kyoto treaty in Argentina, it became increasingly clear that much of the rest of the world has begun to come around to the U.S. point of view.

It's true that most of Europe, led by Britain's Tony Blair, is pushing hard for Kyoto to succeed. But back in December in Buenos Aires, China, India and most of the rest of the developing world formed a bloc that joined the United States in rejecting calls for mandatory future reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. What's more, Italy surprisingly announced at the meeting that it would be withdrawing from the Treaty in 2012, fracturing the European unity over the importance of Kyoto as a first step to further reductions down the road.

What prompted these countries to come more in line with the American position?

For the developing world, they understand that mandating severe limitations on greenhouse gas emissions means slowing down their economies.

As their economies grow, they will use increasing amounts of energy to develop the transportation infrastructure, telecommunication systems, industrial and manufacturing bases, medical systems and housing enjoyed by the developed world. Since there is no currently available technology to reduce emissions drastically without limiting energy use, mandatory restrictions on emissions mean slower economic growth. With millions of people still living in abject and dehumanizing poverty, representatives from the developing world believe they can't afford Kyoto and its regulatory offspring. It leaves them vulnerable to natural climatic events, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, that no level of emissions control can affect.

Those in the developed world, like the Italians, who now doubt the efficacy of Kyoto, are realizing that the treaty has significant structural flaws. The treaty does nothing to address the rapidly rising emissions of quickly growing poor economies. These countries, given population size and growth rates, will soon be among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet. A treaty that does nothing to mitigate those emissions can't possibly claim to take the threat of global warming seriously.

So what next?

The United States has advocated a technology-first approach. It is designed both to promote energy efficiency and to develop carbon-sequestration mechanisms to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions. More than that, the policy seeks to transfer that technology quickly to the developing world.

Critics say that just kicks the can down the road. But this approach has the benefit of giving those mired in poverty in the world's poor countries a better chance to raise their living standards rapidly. And that will make it possible for them to buy more efficient technologies as they are created while also giving them the capacity to adapt to any climate changes -- natural or manmade -- that occur.


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