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Politics

Kyoto Accord

July 14, 2001

Kyoto Accord

By Gwynne Dyer

“Apart from the political embarrassment it would cause, ratification of the Kyoto treaty without US participation would allow foreign energy companies to reap the benefits of the new markets that it created before their American rivals were ready. So it is not good enough to defect from the treaty; you have to kill it. — Gwynne Dyer “IF nothing moves forward in Bonn then we will lose momentum and the process will sink,” Belgium Energy Minister Olivier Deleuze said.

Belgium holds the European Union’s rotating presidency at the moment.

“The key question is… will the US let the other parties go ahead?” asked the EU’s environmental commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, as the countries that signed the Kyoto accord on climate change gathered yesterday for the two-week meeting in the former German capital.

“That is at least what United States President Bush promised.” He was lying. Having paid his debt to the oil and gas industry (which put 78 percent of its presidential campaign contributions into the Bush camp’s coffers), by abruptly cancelling America’s signature on the Kyoto treaty, George W Bush’s highest priority was to ensure the treaty didn’t go into effect anyway.

Global warming is a long-term problem but Mr Bush’s priorities operate on a much shorter time scale.

Mr Bush’s real aim was to sabotage international action on climate change long enough for US-based energy companies to catch up with their foreign competition in the new energy technologies, not to kill a Kyoto-style treaty forever.

Two or three years from now, when Exxon and its friends have caught up with the BPs and Shells of the world, we will see a different attitude to global warming in the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, the White House must avoid the embarrassment of looking isolated in its (entirely specious) reservations about the need to act rapidly on emissions reductions.

A lot of Americans already feel uneasy about their Government’s attempt to kill off the Kyoto treaty, and it would be a public relations disaster if the rest of the industrialised world decided to go ahead even without the US.

Mr Bush’s problem was that the European Union has been insisting it would ratify and obey the Kyoto accord even if the US defected.

Everybody in Europe understood that a treaty which does not include the single country responsible for about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions would not have much impact on global warming but the prevailing view in the EU was that it took 10 years to negotiate this treaty, that it is a worthwhile point of departure — and that time is running out.

If we all have to start the negotiations again from scratch a couple of years from now when US industry is ready to compete, goes the European argument, then we may miss the boat entirely.

Low-lying countries may be submerged by rising sea levels and whole regions may be turning into deserts just because we let the start point of a global emissions control regime slide downstream by more than a decade to accommodate the US.

So ratify the Kyoto treaty now with all its imperfections, and fix the problems later, say the Europeans.

As for the US, some subsequent US administration will come along and sign up either to this treaty or to a follow-on one that is built in these foundations. (Not many people in Europe believe in the concept of a Bush second term.) From the Bush administration’s point of view, however, this would be a most undesirable outcome.

Apart from the political embarrassment it would cause, ratification of the Kyoto treaty without US participation would allow foreign energy companies to reap the benefits of the new markets that it created before their American rivals were ready. So it is not good enough to defect from the treaty; you have to kill it.

How do you do that? Just use the rules of the Kyoto treaty, which say that it can only go into effect if it is ratified by 55 countries that together account for 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

All the Europeans are still in but they can’t make the 55 percent threshold without the industrialised countries that are neither European nor American: Canada, Australia and, above all, Japan.

Canada didn’t even put up a fight. The last time Canada openly defied the US was in 1812 and Canadian politicians know which side their bread is buttered on.

Two weeks ago, Ottawa said that it would not ratify the Kyoto treaty until Washington did, even though the Canadian Government thought it was a good idea.

Australia was equally heroic.

“When I say (the Kyoto treaty) is dead, what I mean is without the US it’s an ineffective global response and it won’t serve the purpose for which it was constructed,” said Australia’s Environment Minister Robert Hill last week, neatly sliding past the fact that Australia, a major coal exporter, had a powerful domestic lobby that was opposed to the deal anyway.

Even without Australia, the Kyoto treaty could still have worked if the Japanese had honoured their signature but the Japanese Foreign Ministry predictably panicked at the thought of confronting the US.

The US embassy in Tokyo twisted the appropriate arms and on July 9, Japan declared that while it shared the Kyoto targets and wanted the protocol enforced by 2002, it was “not willing to conclude the deal without the United States.” End of story, really. The Bonn meeting will close with an anodyne declaration that there will be further discussions with the US and a decade of effort to shape a global response to global warming will go down the drain.

Nobody knows the precise speed at which global warming will overturn the climatic norms on which we base all our assumptions about our lives and our economies.

However, the process was already moving a lot faster than the politics, and now the politics has fallen apart.

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