At the end of the hottest October on record,
delegates from 165 countries
met in Marrakech last fall to finalize the Kyoto Protocol on global climate
change. At first glance, the Kyoto goals seem negligible: By 2012, greenhouse
gases must be cut to slightly below 1990 levels--a reduction to be realized
through a loophole-ridden system of emissions trading. And thanks to the Bush
administration, the 165 signatory nations do not include the United States, the
superpower superpolluter that emits a quarter of the world's greenhouse gases.
But the agreement's puny goals may have masked the beginning of a seismic
shift in the global balance of political power--away from the United States and
toward the European Union. "The view is nonetheless widespread in Europe,"
Jessica Tuchman Matthews wrote recently in Foreign Policy magazine, "that
the U.S. decision on Kyoto could become a turning point in trans-Atlantic
relations." Some European officials actually exulted because U.S. delegates were
not present. Indeed, with the United States not involved, the agreement may
prefigure more aggressive solutions to global warming. The European Union has
already insisted that the World Trade Organization address environmental
impacts--a requirement that could dampen President Bush's ability to make use of
his anticipated new trade-negotiating authority from Congress.
Time and again, the Bush administration has isolated itself by refusing to
join international agreements on everything from land mines and international
criminal courts to biological weapons and global climate change. Domestically,
Bush reneged on a campaign promise to cap carbon emissions from power plants.
His energy plan calls for construction of at least 1,300 new plants over the next
20 years. Bush's withdrawal from the six-year-old international climate
negotiations, then, epitomized his views both on energy and on international
Bush's dismissal of Kyoto sparked hostile demonstrations in Madrid, Stockholm,
and Geneva, and drew angry words from EU officials. Even Tony Blair, America's
staunchest ally in the antiterrorism campaign, declared just weeks after
September 11 that "we could defeat climate change if we chose to. We will
implement [Kyoto]," he said. "But it's only a start. With imagination, we could
use technologies that create energy without destroying our planet."
In the face of the U.S. withdrawal, the other nations gamely struggled to
produce a consensus plan to address the climate crisis. Having already made
significant concessions in a futile effort to secure U.S. participation,
negotiators inserted more loopholes into the Marrakech version to overcome
objections from Russia, Australia, and Japan.
Critics dubbed the resulting product "Kyoto Lite." On its face, the treaty
obligates the world's 38 industrial nations (minus the United States) to reduce
carbon emissions an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. But given
the additional loopholes--chiefly, the inflation of allowances for
carbonabsorbing trees--the real reductions will barely amount to 3 percent below 1990 levels,
several analyses show. (The use of forests to offset global warming is dubious at
best. If all the world's forests were preserved and its deforested areas
reforested, all those trees would absorb only about 15 percent of the fossil-fuel
emissions necessary to stabilize the climate, according to the UN-sponsored IPCC,
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes more than 2,000
scientists from 100 countries.) Most European nations will meet the Kyoto Lite
goals through such relatively painless domestic efforts as increased energy
efficiency, small carbon taxes, or internal emissions trading.
Still, the Kyoto Protocol was a real diplomatic accomplishment.
Despite its loopholes, minimal goals, and lack of an enforcement mechanism, it
does at last provide an international framework for diminishing the climate
crisis. And with the absence of recalcitrant, foot-dragging U.S. delegates, other
countries may find it easier to promote more aggressive approaches to reversing
There is, in fact, a range of cost-effective solutions that could both
pacify the climate and begin to reverse the grotesque economic inequities that
fuel anti-U.S. hostility in the third world. Three years ago, more than 2,500
economists, including six Nobel laureates, declared that we can cut our
emissions--up to 30 percent, by some estimates--simply through efficiencies and
conservation, with a net gain in jobs and productivity. A report issued in early
December 2001 by the Tellus Institute, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the
American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, found that by 2020, the United
States could meet 20 percent of its electricity needs with renewables, save
consumers $440 billion, and avoid having to build 975 new power plants.
The world needs global strategies that will enable countries like India,
China, Mexico, and Venezuela to replace their coal- and oil-based energy
economies with wind, solar, hydrogen, and biomass sources--and provide sufficient
clean energy for future development. That transition would create huge numbers of
jobs abroad and allow the world's poorest citizens--many of whom feel abused and
exploited by the wealthy nations--higher living standards, without the assault on
the environment that characterized Western development.
One such plan, called Contraction and Convergence, was developed by the Global
Commons Institute in Britain. It addresses a fundamental inequity embedded in the
Kyoto Protocol, which essentially allows high-polluting nations to keep on
polluting by using their past emissions levels as a baseline. The burden of
reducing global emissions would fall disproportionately on less-developed
nations. Not surprisingly, those nations want a single global per capita
allowance for carbon emissions so that they have room to develop.
Contraction and Convergence provides an ingenious mechanism for the world both
to set a maximum carbon limit by a date certain and to achieve convergence in the
nations' emissions rights, which would gradually be redistributed so that the
world would achieve a uniform per capita allocation. This would put appropriate
pressure on rich nations, which generate the most pollutants, to shift to
An even bolder approach, the World Energy Modernization Plan--drafted by a
group of energy-company presidents, economists, energy-policy specialists, and
others (including this writer)--proposes a combination of three policies that
would reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent. The plan calls for the redirection
of energy subsidies away from fossil fuels to renewable sources in industrial
nations; the creation of a fund on the order of $300 billion a year to transfer
clean energy to developing countries (financed either through a .025 percent
"Tobin tax" on international currency transactions or through carbon taxes in
industrial countries); and the replacement of the Kyoto framework of
international carbon trading with a progressively more stringent fossil-fuel
Under the stricter standard, every nation would increase its fossil-fuel
efficiency by 5 percent a year until the global 70 percent reduction is achieved.
Since few economies can maintain a 5 percent annual growth rate, emissions
reductions would outpace economic growth. This would be much easier to monitor
than measuring emissions; it would simply entail comparing the ratio of
carbon-fuel consumption with gross domestic product. Countries would initially
realize their goals by implementing inexpensive energy efficiencies, such as
better conservation and more-fuel-efficient cars. As those efficiencies became
more expensive to capture, countries would meet gradually tougher standards by
drawing more energy from renewable sources. That shift, in turn, would create
the mass markets and economies of scale for renewables that would make them as
cheap as or cheaper than coal and oil.
This subsidy switch would convert oil companies into energy companies. The
progressive fossil-fuel efficiency standard would also jump-start renewable
energy, propelling it into a global industry. Worldwide competition for the new
market in clean energy would power the whole process.
By refusing even to consider a plan of this scope and scale, Bush is not only
risking the U.S. leadership role; he is also ceding the leadership of the next
energy economy as European-produced solar, wind, and hydrogen technologies
gradually come to dominate world energy markets.
In Marrakech, November is normally the height of the rainy
season. As the delegates convened, however, Moroccans were struggling through the
fourth year of a severe drought that is destroying forests, depleting water
tables, and promoting the spread of deserts into villages. In nearby Algeria, the
worst flooding in memory killed more than 1,000 people, collapsed buildings, and
turned streets into rivers--another indicator of the violent and unseasonal
weather that marks early-stage global warming.
Climate change is unmistakably accelerating. The deep oceans are warming.
The tundra is thawing. The glaciers are melting. Infectious diseases are
migrating. Violent weather events are occurring more often. The very timing of
the seasons has changed. And all this is the result of just one degree of
warming. According to the IPCC, the earth will warm from 4 degrees to 11 degrees
later in this century.
In November the highly respected British medical journal The Lancet
estimated that millions of people, mostly in developing countries, will die over
the next 20 years from warming-driven outbreaks of dengue fever, malaria,
cholera, encephalitis, and pulmonary diseases. If the world does not soon address
the climate crisis in its true dimensions, it will not much matter where global
political leadership lies. Our fossil-fuel dependency will propel us all into an
indeterminate season of disintegration.