Junior Isles
Managing Editor

Sooner or later, someone was bound to put the brakes firmly on the Kyoto Protocol. It just happened to be US president George W. Bush. But what will now be interesting to see, is whether other governments continue to strongly pursue this ideal or whether they will use the US withdrawal as an excuse to silently give up on something they perhaps never truly wanted to do.

In late March Bush sparked an outcry, particularly from the EU, by reversing a campaign promise to treat carbon dioxide from power plants as a pollutant and source of global warming. Bush said his administration had no plans to implement the accord because it would be bad for the US economy and the Congress would never ratify it. The Kyoto Protocol needs the ratification of signatory states that combine to emit more than 55 per cent of the world’s total pollution to be legally binding. Without the US, this will be difficult to achieve.

The Bush administration said it will seek an alternative that would include poorer, underdeveloped countries now exempt from treaty commitments. US Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christie Whitman said that the accord “is unfair to the US and to other industrialized nations because it exempts 80 per cent of the world from compliance.”

This may be true but “industrialized nations” tend to conveniently forget that they have only become so because they have developed without the need for concern over the environment. This US ‘alternative’ would see poorer countries essentially paying for the success of the richer countries while having a price put on their own development.

Kjell Larsson, Sweden’s environment minister and Margot Wallstroem, the EU’s environment commissioner said the US must bear responsibility for a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. French prime minister Lionel Jospin also noted that the US decision was particularly serious because it was the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world and added: “We are talking about things that affect the survival of the planet.” Unfortunately, some governments put country first, planet second.

The Kyoto Protocol negotiated in 1997 calls for industrialized countries to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases by an average of 5.2 per cent below the 1990 levels by 2012 at the latest. However, US carbon dioxide emissions have continued to grow since the protocol was signed and are now almost 15 per cent above what they were in 1990.

The Bush administration has so far demonstrated it does not care too much for strong environmental policy but the writing was on the wall even before Bush gained the presidency. Last November, the 6th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change held in The Hague was officially “suspended” after the parties failed to agree on the definition and use of carbon sinks to achieve compliance with the Kyoto targets. Consequently, no industrial country has yet ratified the Kyoto treaty.

The European Commission said it would now go it alone to save the collapsing Kyoto accord. The commission made the statement after environment officials from the Commission, Sweden and Belgium failed to talk the United States back into honouring its Kyoto commitment.

Yet with deregulation becoming a global trend with Europe at the forefront, the EU would have had difficulty finding a way to align the goals of Kyoto with the goals of competition. Certainly, price uncertainty caused by deregulation is providing a tough climate for cogeneration projects. With competition putting downward pressure on electricity prices, there is always going to be cost pressure on technologies which limit emissions. And what will happen to plans to increase the use of wind power, for example, in a truly liberalized, non-subsidized power market?

At the same time, there has been no evidence of any rush by EU governments to incorporate carbon taxes into the cost of electricity supply. And this lack of urgent unilateral commitment may have been the unseen assassin of Kyoto anyway.

Annika Ostergren, environment spokeswoman for the EC may argue that “For the EU, the Kyoto Protocol is still alive and kicking” Alive? Maybe. Kicking? Far from it. The death blow to Kyoto may have come from Bush but it could just as easily have come from the unseen assassin in the bushes of the EU.