Where’s the will to break energy status quo?

by Stephen Hesse

Berating the Kyoto Protocol for failing to cut greenhouse-gas emissions is a bit like kicking the dog at a party when someone passes wind. Sure, it’s nice to skirt the blame, but don’t fault the Kyoto accord for society’s flatulence.

We have the technology and capital to make the dramatic cuts in global-warming gases that are needed to limit human-generated climate change. We also know that the economic, social and environmental benefits of taking action greatly outweigh the costs.

In fact, a recent report from the Global Development and Environment Institute of Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, concludes that if we do not take action, global warming and climate change could cost human society trillions of dollars by the end of the century, whereas action now can prevent widespread damage at a relatively low cost.

What we lack are politicians with the political will to act.

The Kyoto Protocol is an international agreement aimed at reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and the resulting climate change. The agreement was adopted in Japan in 1997, and came into force last year. It calls on participating industrialized nations to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases by an average of 5 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.

As an example of international environmental law, the Kyoto Protocol was a success. To date, more than 160 nations have ratified the agreement and it has inspired creative and effective emissions-control initiatives in both governments and the private sector.

The primary shortcoming of the protocol is that numerous compromises were needed to conclude an agreement acceptable to so many differently situated nations, rendering it only modestly ambitious in its targets. Those nations committed to substantial cuts in greenhouse gases were, and remain, hopeful that Kyoto will be given more teeth, leading to larger bites being taken out of greenhouse-gas emissions.

But international law is much like a speed-limit sign: it can’t enforce itself.

Compliance requires either policing powers that carry the threat of punishment, or commitments to self-restraint. At the international level the former do not exist, and the latter are hard to come by.

The United States, which might have held some moral authority in the aftermath of 9/11 and before the invasion of Iraq, has refused to ratify the treaty, as has Australia. Canada, which under the agreement was supposed to cut emissions 6 percent below 1990 levels, has given up even trying now that its discharges have soared nearly 30 percent.

Under the protocol, Japan is expected to achieve cuts to 6 percent below 1990 levels; but with discharges of greenhouse gases continuing to rise, this nation will have to reduce emissions about 14 percent to comply with the treaty.

In contrast, a number of European countries have already met or exceeded their goals. Germany, a major source of greenhouse gases, is on target, having benefited from unification and the subsequent closure of dirty and aging factories and power plants in the former East Germany.

But whether countries achieve their cuts under the Kyoto accord will not depend on the text of the treaty. Success will depend on industrialized nations mustering the political courage to overcome our fossil-fuel-dependent status quo on energy.

So far, that courage is in doubt, a harbinger of humanity’s dangerous capacity for self-delusion and short-term greed.

Iconic of that greed is the oil industry, whose profits have peaked just as scientists worldwide have reached overwhelming consensus that human activities, primarily the use of fossil fuels, are exacerbating global warming and climate change.

Unbowed, oil companies and their lobbyists, particularly in the U.S., appear pleased that industrialized nations are having trouble achieving even the modest cuts called for under Kyoto. Many, indeed, seem to delight in vilifying the protocol.

A good example of this knee-jerk tendency to kick the dog was reported in The Japan Times on Oct. 15, in an AP wire story lamenting the failure of industrial nations to comply with the Kyoto Protocol.

The article quoted Kenneth Green, of the American Enterprise Institute, as saying, “I think there was entirely too much (sic) blue-sky optimistic economic estimates that came out of the pro-Kyoto planning departments. It’s becoming clear that the U.S. policy which was based on harder-headed economic analyses is being borne out by what other countries are experiencing.”

If you’re not sure what Green is saying, let me translate: The U.S. government was smart because it never even considered curbing its greenhouse-gas emissions. Other industrialized nations were foolish to have tried.

In other words, the status quo serves Big Oil best: profits before principles; greed is good.

You might be forgiven for imagining that the oil industry would be eager to see nations achieving their Kyoto goals, if only to substantiate their own advertising claims that “business as usual” is over, and Big Oil is now making serious efforts to combat climate change. But these modern-day carpetbaggers delight in our addiction to oil, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are condemning their own spawn to a compromised biosphere.

As long as people like Green have the ear of politicians in the U.S. Congress, American policies will change glacially slowly. In fact, considering the speed at which ice sheets are melting these days, glaciers appear to be changing much more quickly than U.S. energy policies.

But don’t write off the U.S. yet, despite the fact that it is churning out 25 percent of all the planet’s human-generated greenhouse gases. Beyond the circled wagons in Washington, there are think tanks, environmental groups, local governments and forward-looking business leaders actively seeking new and effective ways to cut greenhouse gases.

In just the past two weeks, several new initiatives have come across my desk. One is called “The Sustainable Energy Blueprint,” a plan endorsed by 145 businesses, environmental organizations and other groups across the U.S. The other is a report titled “American Energy: The Renewable Path to Energy Security,” released by the Center for American Progress and the Worldwatch Institute.

Both initiatives call for the U.S. to make dramatic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions — 60 to 80 percent from current levels by 2050, according to the “Blueprint.” They suggest the elimination of U.S. energy imports and reductions in the use of oil and natural gas; they seek to phase out nuclear power generation for reasons of national security and energy sustainability; and, they recommend greatly increasing energy efficiency and accelerating the transition to renewable energy sources.

This might sound impossible, but it’s not. Each of these efforts can begin tomorrow — if the decision to change is made today. But if we cannot foster the political will to make even small cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, how can we make the really substantial reductions that are necessary to stabilize our climate?

Kyoto calls for only a sliver of the actual cuts that are needed — and that is just a start, at best. Blame lies elsewhere: The industrialized nations that are failing to fulfill their modest obligations under the Kyoto Protocol are negligent, and as the world’s largest economy and main emitter of greenhouse gases, America’s inaction is arguably criminal.

But even at the national level, there is reason for guarded optimism. Just this month, two U.S. senators, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe of Maine, introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at cutting greenhouse-gas emissions by 65 percent by 2050.

We’ll know soon whether the U.S. Congress has courage enough to adopt this new legislation.

Just don’t expect any inspiring ideas from the top. At least for now, the Bush-Cheney White House remains mired in the status quo, unable to shake free from its myopic, self-defeating passion for oil.