A Puny Beginning

The Kyoto treaty is a tiny step -- but it's the beginning of the end of fossil fuels.

| Tue Dec. 16, 1997 1:00 AM PST

Judged by the enormous political obstacles confronting delegates, the achievement at Kyoto was an extraordinary diplomatic success -- but judged by the accelerating impacts of our newly unstable climate, Kyoto is a mere dress rehearsal for a much larger effort to avert environmental chaos.

While the treaty faces resistance from intransigent Senators and criticism from environmentalists who cite the grab-bag of loopholes embedded in its emissions-trading mechanism, it marks an unprecedented diplomatic milestone. One hundred and sixty nations agreed in Kyoto to work together to keep the planet hospitable for our children.

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In forging an agreement, however inadequate, delegates had to wrestle with splits between the European Union and the U.S., between business and environmental lobbyists and, most difficult of all, between the U.S. and the nations of the South.

President Clinton deserves credit for resisting a $13 million ad campaign by fossil fuel interests to require the large developing nations to absorb significant emissions cuts. The administration's position salvages America's diplomatic credibility -- since the exemption of the poor nations from the first round of any cuts was approved by the U.S. and the other parties to the 1992 Rio Treaty.

Underlying that exemption is something the Senate has yet to understand: While the next large pulse of carbon emissions will indeed come from India, China, Mexico, and Brazil, those countries are simply unable to afford a switch to climate-friendly energy technologies. Most of India's state electric boards, for instance, are in virtual bankruptcy. India, like most developing countries, would be delighted to power its economy with wind, solar power, and fuel cells. But given the more immediate stresses of pervasive poverty, all that stands between order and breakdown in India is its vast coal reserves. That's a fact of economic life that will need to be imparted to Sens. Robert Byrd, Chuck Hagel and others if the treaty is ever to be ratified by the Senate.

Last summer, the Senate unanimously resolved to kill any treaty that does not impose heavy emission cutbacks on the developing nations. The vote, sponsored by Byrd and Hagel, mimics the negotiating tactic of the OPEC nations. Taking its cues from oil company strategists, OPEC told the developing countries they should accept only minimal energy restrictions since the "climate scare" was a plot by the wealthy nations to keep them relatively poor. Then OPEC turned around and told the U.N. it would accept no cuts that don't fall equally heavily on the developing countries. That strategy, echoed a few weeks ago by Exxon Chairman Lee Raymond in China, was designed to scuttle the negotiations. And it failed.

That's a good thing for the environment, and it's also a good thing for the U.S. economy. Requiring large emission cuts from poor countries now could actually cost the U.S. economy as many jobs as initially exempting those countries, because such restrictions will shrink markets for Gillette, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and other firms that depend on sales to emerging markets. It seems an open question as to whether or not a West Virginia coal miner's job is more sacrosanct than, say, an assembly line worker in Gillette's South Boston plant.

Ironically, the administration might actually find allies in the fossil fuel community. Last May, the chairman of British Petroleum acknowledged the destructive potentials of climate change and announced a large investment in solar. In October, the president of General Motors called for carbon taxes to reduce emissions. Recently, Shell announced its intention to invest $500 million in renewables. These industry leaders understand the overriding certainty of the science -- and the need to begin to position their companies to play prominent roles in the inevitable coming energy transition.

For America, the initial treaty obligation of 7 percent cuts below 1990 levels will, contrary to industry doomsayers, create more jobs and more wealth: Some 2,500 economists say we can reduce emissions while growing the economy. True, that 7 percent translates into a cut of about 15 percent below current emission levels, but energy specialists -- from Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute to the energy planners at the Tellus Institute in Boston -- say we can achieve as much as 30 percent cuts simply by implementing conservation and energy efficiency measures which will create jobs and save industries money on their energy bills.


Economics aside, there is a far more important yardstick by which to judge Kyoto, and that is the accelerating destabilization of the climate. The science clearly tells us that to restore our atmosphere to a hospitable state we need to cut emissions by a staggering 60 to 70 percent.

That translates into a comprehensive global energy transition away from coal and oil, to climate-friendly, renewable technologies. Those technologies are at hand today. They require no decline in our standard of living. What they need to become competitive is to be ramped up to mass production and economies of scale.

That is a large task -- but it is one that can and must ultimately be achieved, using the launching pad known as the Kyoto Protocol. In the U.S., we might begin the process by changing our subsidy policies. Today the federal government spends $25 billion subsidizing big coal and big oil. If all those tax credits and subsidies and incentives were diverted to the commercialization of renewable energies, it could propel renewables into the big league of global commerce.

Ultimately a global energy transition requires a partnership between the world's governments and its energy giants to divert part of the profit stream from the $2 trillion commerce in oil and coal to finance windmill plants in India; solar assemblies in El Salvador; vast, hydrogen-producing photovoltaic farms in the deserts of the Middle East; and fuel cell factories in Cleveland.

That kind of energy transition would create a worldwide economic boom and generate millions of jobs all over the globe, in part because renewable energies are more labor-intensive than fossil fuels. A global energy transition would begin to reverse the widening economic gap between the North and the South -- and in short order renewable energy would eclipse high technology as the central driving engine of growth of the global economy.

That is the lesson of Kyoto. That -- and the knowledge that while the world's diplomats have spent five years in talks marked by indifference, posturing and sabotage, the destabilization of the planetary climate is proceeding at its own pace.

The deep oceans are warming, causing the breakup of Antarctic ice shelves and fueling, in the view of many scientists, longer and more destructive El Niños. The Alaskan tundra, which for thousands of years absorbed carbon dioxide and methane, is now thawing and releasing those gases into the atmosphere. The permafrost in Siberia and Alaska is turning to pea soup. Tropical diseases are expanding their ranges. Insurance losses to floods, droughts and severe storms are escalating by orders of magnitude. And people all over the world are increasingly vulnerable to weather-driven food shortages, property losses, and personal trauma from the succession of extreme weather events which are occurring with frightening frequency all over the world.

The treaty at Kyoto is a puny beginning. But it contains the seeds for a monumental revolution which could, with one bold stroke, begin to heal the global economy even as it begins to pacify our inflamed climate.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan is the author of The Heat Is On: The High Stakes Battle Over Earth's Threatened Climate (Addison-Wesley, 1997).

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