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The best of a bad deal


Tuesday 28 November 2000

The Canadians and the Australians were just as bad, really, and the Saudi Arabians were outrageous: they want the world to compensate them for every barrel of oil they don't sell if it cuts back on burning fossil fuels to slow global warming. But the Americans were the real reason the 175-country talks at The Hague on climate change broke up in chaos on Saturday.

“I'm gutted,” said Britain's chief negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, after he stormed out of the conference and brought proceedings to an abrupt close. “There's no deal. The talks are finished. We came so close.”

But the only reason they came close at all was because Britain, ever the eager go-between, had proposed a deal that would let the United States squirm out of its promise, made when the Convention on Climate Change was first agreed at Kyoto in 1997, to cut its carbon emissions at least marginally by 2010. “Britain conceded too much to America and it was not acceptable,” explained France's chief negotiator, Dominique Voynet, after she and other European Union representatives vetoed the deal and provoked Prescott's dramatic departure.

In a universe run on strict moral principles, Voynet would be right, since the US had come to The Hague with a set of proposals that would have let it get out of cutting its carbon dioxide emissions at all. All the real cuts would be made elsewhere, while America created a series of loopholes to ensure its citizens could go on driving gas guzzlers that get about 20 metres to the litre.

In practice, however, Prescott was right to seek a compromise. The Hague conference was intended to work out rules for enforcing the principles agreed at Kyoto, and the plain fact is that it's already too late for the US to keep its promises under that treaty. With only 4per cent of the world's people, the US produces 23per cent of the carbon dioxide that spews into the air from vehicles, factories and power plants.

The US Government no longer questions the scientific evidence that global warming is under way, and agrees it needs to be curbed. That is why it signed the Kyoto treaty in 1997, which committed the world's developed countries to freezing their carbon emissions at 1990 levels, and then reducing them by 5per cent (7per cent in America's case) by 2010.

However, US emissions have already grown by more than 10per cent over the 1990 level, mainly due to the long economic boom. Given the present trend in the American economy, according to chief US climate negotiator Frank E. Loy, the US would have to slash emissions by 35per cent from where they would otherwise be by 2010 in order to keep its promises.

That is plainly impossible, at least in political terms, so Washington went to The Hague with a set of proposals that brazenly aimed at exempting the US from most of its duties under the treaty.

Chief among the dodges that Loy proposed was a plan to let rich countries buy up the “credits” others earn for reducing their carbon emissions. That would let Washington and its partners in crime, Canada and Australia, buy up savings that Russia, for example, has accumulated because all its heavy industries went into a steep decline in the 1990s.

No actual cut in carbon emissions would be achieved by this device. The energy-profligate countries would simply be able to take credit for reductions that had already happened anyway. The same principle underlay the bizarre idea of giving the heavily forested North American countries “credits” for the fact that their forests act as global “carbon sinks”, absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The US also wanted credit for planting forests at home and elsewhere, and for selling nuclear power plants to Third World countries anything to avoid the politically painful task of persuading its citizens to change their energy habits. No wonder an outraged green lost it last week and pushed a cream pie into Loy's face.

Yet ordinary Americans have their hearts in the right place. Four out of five, in a recent opinion poll, said they wanted Washington to take action to reduce the carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. Two-thirds of them wanted that policy even if developing nations were not asked to make equal cuts.

The problem is that the US political process, and especially the campaign finance rules, give special interests such as the oil and car industries such power that they effectively control American policy on global warming. And US cooperation in the process of curbing global warming is indispensable, even if it means exempting the US from the sacrifices everyone else must make: a 300-kilogram gorilla sits where it wants.

Even to ratify the Kyoto treaty takes the signatures of developed countries responsible for 55per cent of the world's carbon emissions. Given the scale of US emissions, it is hard to reach that number without American participation, so it has to be allowed to welsh on its own promises.

The protesters outside the conference halls can chant “You've sunk the world” (a reference to rising sea levels due to global warming) to their hearts' content, but the ugly fact is that Prescott's compromise was the only way to get the world moving in the right direction. At the next meeting, in Bonn next May, the rest of the world will probably bite the bullet and accept that fact.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist.

-- Long (term@policy.decisions), November 28, 2000


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