Compromises to Reach Climate Accord Open Loopholes
BETWEEN THE LINES Q&A
from the nationally syndicated radio newsmagazine "Between The Lines" http://www.btlonline.org
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints on national and international issues under-reported in major media For release July 30, 2001
Compromises to Reach Bonn Climate Accord Open Many Loopholes
* Environmental group says that despite U.S. non-participation, pact is still a step toward reducing global warming pollution
After marathon negotiating sessions that stretched until dawn July 23, representatives of 178 nations agreed on enforcement mechanisms to bind signatories of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming and climate change. The accord moved forward the work begun in Japan in 1997 endorsed at the time by most of the world's nations. But conspicuously missing from the Bonn agreement was the United States, which under the Bush administration has rejected Kyoto as "fatally flawed." Mr. Bush maintains that mandatory reduction of greenhouse gases would harm the U.S. economy.
Although the absence of the U.S., which produces 25 percent of the gases that cause global warming, greatly reduces the effectiveness of the accord, some diplomats and environmentalists hope that the agreement will increase pressure in Washington to join in the future. The Bonn agreement calls for 38 industrialized nations to reduce their gas emissions to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, while affording nations credits for protecting forests and investment in new technology.
Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with Alex Veitch of the Sierra Club, who examines the strengths and weaknesses of the accord and the effect U.S. rejection will have on reaching Kyoto's goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Alex Veitch: One hundred seventy-eight nations around the world agreed to take action on global warming. Obviously as environmentalists, the Sierra Club was very pleased about that. What we're not so pleased about are the deals that were done to get certain countries to sign on to the agreement. The idea of the Kyoto Protocol, and now this agreement reached in Bonn, is that countries agreed to cut emissions. What actually happened (in previous negotiations) is that countries such as the U.S., Canada, Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia -- the group that works together and calls themselves the "umbrella group" -- have managed to negotiate loopholes in the treaty that will allow them to keep on polluting while looking like they're taking action on global warming.
This doesn't apply to the U.S. The U.S. has said it will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. It did not take part in negotiations in Bonn. So the encouraging thing is that other countries around the world -- especially countries like Japan and Canada which have previously been rather obstructive in these negotiations -- have now agreed to start taking steps to curb global warming.
The only problem is the issue of taking credits for what we call carbon "sinks." That's the theory that you can avoid cutting your pollution because you have forests in your country. That means as forests grow they soak up a certain amount of carbon dioxide; countries can then use that as credit to offset emissions from power plants. That's troubling, because in theory it sounds like a good idea, but in practice it means that heavily forested countries that also have a lot of industry can avoid cutting their pollution just simply because they have forests. So, it's kind of a tricky issue. But all in all, it's got to be a good thing that we have this agreement on climate change.
Between The Lines: With the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, can the nations of the world go forward despite the fact that the U.S. alone produces 25 percent of all the green house gases? Is this treaty really going to make a difference given one of the planet's major polluters is not opting in?
Alex Veitch: There's two answers to that. Yes, it's still going to make a difference. With the inclusion of Japan, Australia, Canada and Europe, you're going to hit the magic figure of 55 percent of the world's carbon dioxide global warming pollution. The Kyoto Protocol has a mechanism whereby if enough countries sign up to cover 55 percent of the global warming pollution in the world, the treaty comes into force. And so that's why it was so important to get Canada and Japan to agree to the Protocol. The idea is that as other countries start taking action to cut their pollution, companies that work in the U.S. will see that there's a competitive advantage in producing cleaner technology, cleaner cars, cleaner power plants that kind of thing. Also from international pressure with countries starting to ratify Kyoto -- the U.S. should (eventually) come on board, at least that's the hope.
The second point to make is that this doesn't mean that just because the U.S. isn't part of the Kyoto Protocol, there aren't still several things we can do to start cutting our global warming pollution here in the U.S. The biggest single step we can take to curb global warming is actually making our cars, SUVs and light trucks go further on a gallon of gas. There are some exciting developments on that at the moment.
Between The Lines: When people take a look at the goals and the timetable of this treaty and the Kyoto Protocol, there are critics who say, although this is a grand effort, it may be too little, too late. What's your view?
Alex Veitch: Well, it's never "too little, too late" to do something about global warming. We hear a lot of horror stories. People think environmentalists are wringing their hands in actual terror of what's going to happen. There is a problem. Global warming is going to change our climate. We need to start taking steps. That's the bad news. The good news is, there are actually things we can do to cut global warming pollution and save ourselves money at the same time. Things that are good for the environment can also be good for the economy -- good for all of us when it comes to paying our electricity and gasoline bills. It's not all bad news, and certainly while it's going to be a tough struggle to reduce carbon dioxide to safe levels, there's no reason why it should be painful to the economy. Clearly, no matter how small we start, no matter how low the goals of the Kyoto Protocol are, the sooner we get on this path, the sooner we get going, the better and easier it's going to be.
Between The Lines: How potent a force is public opinion, both here and abroad, to exert pressure on government and industries to go beyond the Kyoto Protocol with this framework in Bonn, Germany?
Alex Veitch: It is incredibly influential, and we've seen the administration change overnight the way that it presents these issues. The Bush administration was just amazed by how people received their energy plan. It was all because local folks all around the country -- Sierra Club members, environmentalists and concerned citizens -- were voicing their absolute horror that this energy plan paid no attention to energy efficiency or renewable energy. The vice president went from talking about conservation as a "sign of personal virtue but no basis for a sound energy policy " to the situation now where he recently made one speech where he must have mentioned "energy efficiency" or "conservation" 25 times. So, it's important to keep telling your elected representatives, "Do the right thing on energy, let's talk about efficiency, let's talk about Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards and renewable energy." It's the only way we're going to start making progress on global warming, and it saves us money at the same time.
Contact the Sierra Club by calling (202) 547-1141 or visit their Web site at: http://www.sierraclub.org
Scott Harris is WPKN Radio's public affairs director and executive producer of Between The Lines. This interview excerpt was featured on the award-winning, syndicated weekly radio newsmagazine, Between The Lines, for the week ending Aug. 3, 2001.
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