U.S. Won't Shoulder Kyoto Responsibility

17 February 2005

By Stentor Danielson

Yesterday the Kyoto Protocol, the first real international effort to combat climate change, went into effect. Conspicuously absent from the treaty's reach were the two nations with the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions: the United States and Australia. Motivated by lifestyle inertia and misguided claims of unfairness, the two top climate change villains plan to free-ride on other nations' efforts to avoid damaging shifts in temperature, rainfall, and sea level.

The United States has had a huge influence on the Protocol for a nation that refuses to abide by it. Then-Vice President Al Gore helped to piece together the compromise that kept the 1997 negotiations in Kyoto from collapsing. The Bush administration pressed hard for including emissions trading schemes and credits for carbon sinks (efforts, such as planting trees, that remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere).

The obvious reasons for the refusal of the US and Australia to participate are economic -- we don't want to retool our factories and give up our Hummers. If climate change does occur, these countries are rich enough to ride out the more moderate impacts that will hit temperate latitudes. Wishful thinking sweetens the bargain, as it inclines the administration to listen to the few dissenters from the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is happening. On the other hand, Europe has already made substantial investments in reducing its emissions, while Russia's economy collapsed so dramatically after the fall of the Soviet regime that it couldn't emit as much as the Protocol allows even if it wanted to.

A key additional complaint voiced by both George W. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard has to do with the structure of the Kyoto Protocol. Though all signatories must monitor their greenhouse gas emissions and endorse the principle of reducing them, only countries in Annex I --the highly industrialized "First World" -- must commit to hard caps on their emissions.

Critics of Kyoto complain that this arrangement is unfair. China emits more greenhouse gasses than the whole European Union, while India ranks fifth. As those nations' populations grow and their industries expand, they will contribute more and more to the problem of climate change. It was on this rationale that the US Senate voted 95-0 to refuse Kyoto in 1997. John Kerry, in his failed bid to unseat Bush, adopted this argument as well.

This concept of equality is appealing. After all, climate change is a global phenomenon, and a tonne of carbon has the same impact on the atmosphere whether it comes out of a Chinese smokestack or an American exhaust pipe. But while all emissions end up equal, they are not all created equally. And since reducing emissions must target the creation of emissions, it is on this level that equality should be calculated.

The simplest way to see the problem with the Bush-Howard-Kerry thesis is to look at per capita emissions. Australia and the US lead the list, emitting well over twice the greenhouse gasses per capita of any developing country besides Saudi Arabia.

Bush and Howard profess to be worried about the economic impact of reducing emissions. Yet the economic impact of emissions reductions is far less for Annex I countries than for other nations. For China to stabilize its emissions requires jeopardizing the jobs that put food on the table. For the US, it means taking the train to work. This is not to say that making a real impact would be easy for a country whose infrastructure is built on prodigal use of fossil fuels. But it is certainly easier than asking India to emit nearly zero emissions per person. Developing countries have refused to sign on to any agreement that requires them to sacrifice their economic prospects, preventing them from catching up to the wealthy lifestyles of Annex I.

Thus far we've only been talking about the present. But past emissions are even more skewed toward Annex I, as these countries have been pumping out carbon at high volumes for far longer than China or India. Those gasses are still in the atmosphere, still ratcheting up the temperature, still melting glaciers and amplifying hurricanes. Annex I countries have already used up their share of the earth's capacity to absorb greenhouse emissions.

When it comes to climate change, we are not all in the same boat. Some nations will suffer more, because they are more exposed to its effects (for example, low-lying nations like Bangladesh) or because their citizens' livelihoods are more vulnerable to changes in weather patterns (such as African nations dependent on subsistence farming and herding). Yet it is a different set of nations that have largely created the problem, and who are most able to correct it. Simplistic views of what it means for all nations be treated equally mask the responsibility of industrialized nations like the United States and Australia to take the lead in reducing their emissions. Only after we "walk the walk" of developing a comfortable modern lifestyle that does not harm the Earth can we ask other nations to keep their emissions in check.

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