Global Warming

November 30, 2000

Loopholes Big As SUVs

By Gwynne Dyer

The Canadians and the Australians were just as bad, really. And the Saudi Arabians were absolutely 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 that 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 in fury 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 that Britain, ever the eager go-between, had proposed a deal that would let America squirm out of its promise, made when the Convention on Climate Change was first agreed at Kyoto, Japan, 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 United States 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 that its own citizens could go on driving SUVs that get about 20 yards to the gallon.

With only 4 percent of the world’s people, the United States produces 23 percent of the carbon dioxide that spews into the air from humankind’s vehicles, factories and power plants. The U.S. government no longer questions the scientific evidence that global warming is under way, and agrees that 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 5 percent (7 percent in America’s case) by 2010.

In fact, U.S. emissions have already grown by more than 10 percent over the 1990 level, mainly due to the long economic boom. Given the present trend in the American economy, according to chief U.S. climate negotiator Frank E. Loy, the United States would have to slash emissions by 35 percent from where they would otherwise be by 2010 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 United States 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” other countries earn for reducing their carbon emissions. That would let Washington and its partners-in-crime Canada and Australia buy up the carbon emission savings that Russia, for example, has accumulated because all its heavy industries went into a steep decline in the ’90s.

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 underlays 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 problem is that the U.S. 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 U.S. cooperation in curbing global warming is indispensable, even if it means exempting the United States from the sacrifices everyone else must make: a 600-pound gorilla sits where it wants.

At the next meeting, in Bonn, Germany, in May, the rest of the world will probably bite the bullet and accept that fact.