Climate Treaty Negotiators Put U.S. in No-Win Situation, Experts Say

Published July 1, 1997

In pressing for an international treaty imposing legally binding limits on emissions of man-made greenhouse gases, the United States is setting an economic trap for itself, according to Thomas G. Moore, senior fellow at the California-based Hoover Institution.

Eager to produce the broad outlines of an agreement well in advance of the December global climate change conference in Kyoto, Japan, the Clinton administration is toying with several schemes designed to combat what it says is the threat of a dangerous warming of the planet. As things stand now, the White House favors a plan that would require industrialized countries and those that used be behind the Iron Curtain to establish multi-year “budgets” for greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide.

Under this arrangement, the former Communist countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Bulgaria, would have less stringent requirements than the wealthier industrialized countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The draft protocol “encourages” the rest of the world–China, India, Latin America, and Africa–to become signatories to the agreement, but exempts them from the agreement’s mandates. Just how troublesome this scheme will be can be seen in the attitude of South Korea, which has applied for membership in the OECD but will join only if it remains exempt from restrictions on emissions of greenhouse gases, Moore points out.

Establishing a national “budget” for emissions is only the beginning of what promises to be ongoing trouble. Moore adds. Once the greenhouse gas “budget” process gets underway, all states will be required to have in place a system for measuring man-made greenhouse gases and their removal, even though their measurement is neither easy nor accurate. “Does anyone really believe that Belarus, Greece, and Romania will have an accurate monitoring system in place by the start of the program, perhaps by the year 2000?” Moore asks.

Moreover, countries failing to live up to their emissions requirements will be able to do so with impunity; no sanctions are contemplated in the draft for violators of what will be known as the Kyoto Protocol, Moore points out.

Adding to the confusion that seems certain to emerge from the administration’s plan is the fact that the budget proposals require forecasts of future greenhouse gas emissions. “Energy use, which requires the burning of fossil fuels, depends on economic growth and prosperity which, in turn, requires energy supplies.” Moore observes. “Accurate forecasts for a long budget period, such as what the United States’ plan requires, are impossible. Not only are we unable to predict the future of the economy, but technology can change greatly leading to even more or less demand for fossil fuels.”

“No matter what the scheme adopted to limit greenhouse gas emissions,” Moore adds, “the United States will be a loser.” He notes that restrictions on energy use in the U.S. will hurt the nation’s industries, especially those which are energy intensive, such as coal and oil, steel, auto manufacturing, and transportation.” Despite the enormous costs of the treaty, the U.S., as its chief sponsor, would likely abide by its terms, even though compliance by other states is less assured.

And what would be the climatological benefits of this sacrifice? According to Bert Bolin, head of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the proposed emissions restrictions on greenhouse gases would cut warming “by less than 0.1 degree C, which would not be detectable.”