Economic Concerns Stall US Accord on Kyoto
Patricia Lloyd Williams
Will the United States ratify the Kyoto Protocol? Not soon and not in its present form. The Clinton Administration has decided not to present it to the Senate for ratification at this time because it would undoubtedly be rejected. While the protocol has supporters, there are legitimate concerns that must be addressed before it can be ratified.
Some policy-makers continue to question whether global warming is a real threat. The scientific community has reached a general consensus that human activities are affecting the climate. However, a small minority says that so far, there is no clear evidence that human-induced change is occurring. This view has been embraced by some politically-powerful leaders in carbon-intensive industries such as coal, oil and automobiles, who use that argument to support their opposition to the protocol. As a result of their vocal opposition, there is less consensus among the general public about global warming.
Many who do not dispute the scientific consensus or the need to take action oppose the protocol for other reasons. The most compelling concern is the impact the treaty might have on the American economy and the American people. At issue is the treatment of developing countries. Many question the wisdom and fairness of imposing tough mandatory limits and timetables on developed countries, including the USA, while leaving developing nations free to pollute.
Although the United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases today, China is expected to become the largest emitter in the near future but has not yet committed to reductions or controls. Chinese emissions may be lower on a per capita basis, but that does not change the impact of the total volume of greenhouse gases released. The environmental problem cannot be solved unless the developing countries help solve it. Key legislators are highly reluctant to accept limits on US emissions until the developing nations agree to do their part.
This leads to a concern that America`s carbon-intensive industries will have an economic incentive to move operations to countries that do not have greenhouse goals. This could result in a loss of American jobs – a major fear – and have a negative impact on the economy. Enough “leakage” of carbon emissions into other countries could even make the global warming problem worse.
Other businesses are concerned that the cost of meeting the Kyoto standards will put them at a competitive disadvantage compared to businesses in developing nations that are not required to meet standards. A corollary concern is that the treaty will allow international agencies to exercise undue restraint and control over American businesses, again to their competitive disadvantage.
These arguments are countered by those who see new economic opportunities, new jobs, relatively little cost, and greater community empowerment as a result of new technological developments if the treaty is put in place.
Whatever the merits, these concerns are serious enough that even before the historic meeting in Kyoto, the US Senate passed a resolution opposing any treaty that mandates new commitments by developed nations to limit or reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless there are also mandates for developing countries. The resolution also states that any treaty should not result in harm to the US economy. This sense of the Senate is unlikely to change in the short term.
While the potential impact on the American economy is probably the most emotional issue in the debate, questions remain about other aspects of the agreement, such as credit for carbon sinks, the mechanism for the emissions trading programme (generally viewed as favourable by US observers), credit for early action and enforcement provisions. These issues too must be resolved.
Working towards solutions
Treaty ratification is also a political issue, despite the fact that Republican President Bush started the process with the Rio Framework. If conservatives – seen as more likely to oppose the protocol – win more seats in Congress in the November election, it may make ratification more difficult.
Nevertheless the fact that the Senate is not ready to ratify the Kyoto Protocol now does not mean that it will not happen. Legislative action in the US often comes as the result of compelling public concern. That is not likely to happen in this case. Most Americans are more concerned with what is happening today than something that might occur in 50 years.
There is another way to get the attention of Congress, and that is for political, business and scientific leaders to reach a consensus on the need for action. The Kyoto Protocol has a dedicated champion in Vice President Gore, and the Administration is working hard to bring the developing nations on board and to resolve other issues.
The scientific community already supports action. The business community has not yet reached a consensus, but it includes many proponents of action to address climate change. If the Administration can address legitimate concerns and if proponents present a persuasive case to Congress, there is hope that an expanded protocol could be ratified in the year 2000 time frame.
Patricia Lloyd Williams is a freelance writer based in the Washington DC metropolitan area