Swords Are Drawn After Kyoto

Published January 1, 1998

By committing the United States to a series of far-reaching steps it says are necessary to combat the threat of global warming, the Clinton administration has set the stage for a dramatic confrontation with the Senate and other powerful segments of American society over the future of energy use in the U.S.

The administration was the driving force behind the Kyoto Protocol, adopted on December 11 by representatives of 159 nations after marathon negotiating sessions in the ancient Japanese capital. Pushed by Vice President Al Gore to show “increased flexibility” to avoid a breakdown of the conference, the U.S. delegation abandoned key negotiating positions it had insisted on for months. Getting a treaty became the overriding objective of the delegation; the substance of the accord was reduced to a secondary consideration.

Devil’s in the Details

In many respects, the accord reflects the chaotic circumstances under which it was negotiated. Facing an artificially set deadline of December 10 (a deadline that was not met), negotiators were forced to paper over a host of important details so they could catch their planes for the return trip home.

Billed as an environmental treaty, the Kyoto Protocol is more an agreement on how industrialized nations, particularly the United States, are to ration their use of energy in the decades to come. The administration committed the U.S. to reduce its emissions of man-made greenhouse gases by 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. The European Union (EU) and Japan agreed to cut emissions by 8 and 6 percent, respectively.

Conspicuously absent from the list of countries agreeing to restrict their burning of fossil fuels are the developing nations. China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, and other developing nations were specifically exempted from legally binding restrictions on their output of greenhouse gases by the Berlin Mandate of 1995, which served as the framework for the negotiations in Kyoto. The exemption was based on the assumption that the developing countries could not afford the economic consequences that would inevitably result from restrictions on their energy use.

Concessions Galore

The developing nations’ exemption from the Kyoto Protocol presents a serious political problem for the Clinton administration. Last summer, the Senate adopted by a 95-0 vote the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, declaring that the Senate would not approve any global emissions-reduction scheme that exempted developing countries and threatened to harm the U.S. economy. Senators in both parties noted that China and India, for example, will be major emitters of greenhouse gases within 20 years, and that their exclusion from the Kyoto Protocol would undermine the initiative.

Acknowledging the Senate’s position, the Clinton administration insisted throughout the negotiations in Kyoto that developing countries “meaningfully participate” in an arrangement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When those nations refused, U.S. negotiators, embracing Vice President Gore’s call for “increased flexibility,” promptly dropped their demand.

The same fate befell the administration’s plans for an international greenhouse gas trading scheme. Modeled after a domestic program that allows utilities to trade their emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), the proposal was greeted with little enthusiasm by America’s negotiating partners. In the end, all the administration could get was a promise to study the proposal at a later date.

Not content with these concessions, the U.S. delegation also dropped its long-standing objections to the EU’s so-called “bubble.” Under the bubble, EU member nations’ emissions will be counted as a whole.

The bubble will allow the EU to take credit for reduced emissions obtained as a result of Britain’s shutting scores of coal mines in favor of natural gas, and for closing the former East Germany’s obsolete factories, notorious sources of pollution. Neither step had anything to do with cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions or combating the global warming threat. But the resulting greenhouse gas reductions will permit the EU’s poorer members, such as Greece and Portugal, to actually increase their greenhouse gas output.

Even the U.S. chief negotiator in Kyoto, Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, was forced to admit to Congressional observers of the conference that the bubble puts Americans at a disadvantage vis-a-vis their European competitors.

The U.S. military fared no better at Kyoto than did American businesses and consumers. Greenhouse gas emissions generated by domestic training and operations of U.S. armed forces are included in the new protocol. The expected impact on training exercises has already raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill, where House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman (R-New York) has warned that, “this will generate pressure from the UN to curtail the training and operations that have made our armed forces second to none.”

Echoing sentiments expressed by a growing number of lawmakers, Gilman demanded that rogue states such an Iraq, Iran, and Libya be excluded from any benefits they, as developing countries, may derive from the protocol.

Fate of the Missing Pieces

Administration officials from the President on down have responded to the torrent of criticism that greeted the protocol by assuring everyone that some of the missing pieces to the Kyoto puzzle will be created at meetings scheduled for Bonn and Buenos Aires in 1998.

Key among those “missing pieces” is some sort of enforcement mechanism, which would appear to most observers to be an important element of a treaty designed to impose legally binding restrictions on scores of countries and millions of businesses.

With respect to the missing “meaningful participation” by developing nations, the White House hopes to persuade at least some developing countries to agree to some verbal commitment on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. To tempt the developing nations into participating, the Kyoto Protocol creates a “Clean Development Mechanism” that will allow for the transfer of technology and other yet-to-be-determined forms of largess from industrialized nations to poorer countries.

Originally dubbed the “Clean Development Fund,” the plan was re-named to counter the impression that it was little more than a scheme to buy off Third World leaders in an effort to win Senate ratification for the treaty.

Public policy observers of the UN-sponsored conference note it was heavily stacked in favor of people ill-equipped to assess the long-term effects on the world’s economic and political stability of restrictions on the use of energy. Environmental ministers dominated the conference; economic ministers were few and far between. Green groups, led by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, dominated the corridors. Representatives of small businesses were nowhere to be seen, while even organized labor and farmers were virtually ignored.