Washington’s ‘satellites’ scupper Kyoto


LONDON — “If nothing moves forward in Bonn then we will lose momentum and the process will sink,” said Olivier Deleuze, the energy minister of Belgium, which holds the European Union’s rotating presidency at the moment.

“The key question is . . . will the U.S. let the other parties go ahead?” asked the EU’s environmental commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, as the countries that signed the Kyoto accord on climate change gathered for the meeting in the former German capital on 16-27 July. “That is at least what President Bush promised.”

The U.S. president was lying. Having paid his debt to the oil and gas industry (which put 78 percent of its presidential campaign contributions into the Bush camp’s coffers) by abruptly cancelling America’s signature on the Kyoto treaty, George W. Bush’s highest priority was to ensure that the treaty didn’t go into effect anyway. Global warming is a long-term problem, but Bush’s priorities operate on a much shorter time-scale.

Bush’s real aim was to sabotage international action on climate change long enough for U.S.-based energy companies to catch up with their foreign competition in the new energy technologies, not to kill a Kyoto-style treaty forever. Two or three years from now, when Exxon and its friends have caught up with the BPs and Shells of the world, we will see a different attitude to global warming in the Bush administration.

Meanwhile, however, the White House must avoid the embarrassment of looking isolated in its entirely specious reservations about the need to act rapidly on emissions reductions. A lot of Americans already feel uneasy about their government’s attempt to kill off the Kyoto treaty, and it would be a public relations disaster if the rest of the industrialized world decided to go ahead even without the U.S.

Bush’s problem was the European Union has been insisting that it would ratify and obey the Kyoto accord even if the U.S. defected. Everybody in Europe understood that a treaty that does not include the single country responsible for about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions will not have much impact on global warming, but the prevailing view in the EU was that it took 10 years to negotiate this treaty, that it is a worthwhile point of departure — and that time is running out.

If we all have to start the negotiations again from scratch a couple of years from now when U.S. industry is ready to compete, goes the European argument, then we may miss the boat entirely. Low-lying countries may be submerged by rising sea-levels, whole regions may be turning into deserts, just because we let the start-point of a global emissions-control regime slide downstream by more than a decade to accommodate the U.S.

So ratify the Kyoto treaty now with all its imperfections, and fix the problems later, say the Europeans. As for the U.S., some future administration will come along and sign up either to this treaty or to a follow-on one that is built in these foundations. From the Bush administration’s point of view, however, this would be a most undesirable outcome.

Apart from the political embarrassment it would cause, ratification of the Kyoto treaty without U.S. participation would allow foreign energy companies to reap the benefits of the new markets that it created before their U.S. rivals were ready. So it is not good enough to defect from the treaty; you have to kill it.

How do you do that? Just use the rules of the Kyoto treaty, which say that it can only go into effect if it is ratified by 55 countries that together account for 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. All the Europeans are still in, but they can’t make the 55 percent threshold without the industrialized countries that are neither European nor American: Canada, Australia, and above all Japan.

Canada didn’t even put up a fight. The last time Canada openly defied the U.S. was in 1812, and Canadian politicians know which side their bread is buttered on. Two weeks ago, Ottawa said that it would not ratify the Kyoto treaty until Washington got around to it, even though the Canadian government thought it was a good idea.

Australia was equally heroic. “When I say (the Kyoto treaty) is dead, what I mean is without the United States it’s an ineffective global response and it won’t serve the purpose for which it was constructed,” said Australia’s Environment Minister Robert Hill, neatly sliding past the fact that Australia, a major coal exporter, had a powerful domestic lobby that was opposed to the deal anyway.

Even without Australia, the Kyoto treaty could still have worked if the Japanese had honored their signature, but the Japanese Foreign Ministry predictably panicked at the thought of confronting the U.S. The U.S. embassy in Tokyo twisted the appropriate arms, and July 9 Japan declared that while it shared the Kyoto targets and wanted the protocol enforced by 2002, it was “not willing to conclude the deal without the United States.”

End of story, really. The Bonn meeting will close with an anodyne declaration that there will be further discussions with the U.S., and a decade of effort to shape a global response to global warming will go down the drain.

Nobody knows the precise speed at which global warming will overturn the climatic norms on which we base all our assumptions about our lives and our economies. But the process was already moving a lot faster than the politics, and now the politics has fallen apart.