Magazine

Commentary: The Climate Pact: Is the Forecast Bright?


By Paul Raeburn

While anti-globalization protesters in Genoa commanded the world's TV coverage, environment ministers meeting in Bonn, Germany, took a step toward a post-petroleum world. The world's biggest energy users--with the notable exception of the U.S.--agreed to set limits on emissions of the greenhouse gases that can lead to global warming. They established penalties if the limits weren't met. And they created programs to trade emissions credits and encourage emissions reductions in developing countries.

The agreement has left the U.S. isolated on the issue of climate change. That leaves a big hole in the treaty. The U.S. is responsible for 25% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. President Bush, who withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol earlier this year, has yet to offer an alternative.

Does that mean, as critics and the Administration contend, that without the U.S., progress will be impossible? Not at all. The accord represents an important step. It extends the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which called upon industrialized countries to cut emissions to at least 5% below 1990 levels by 2012--or some 20% below likely emissions levels without a cap. "This is no more smoke-and-mirrors," says Connie Holmes, a vice-president at the National Mining Assn., which represents coal producers.

Such reductions will not happen, of course, if nations do not abide by the accord. But there are reasons to think they will. For one, meeting the limits may not be as tough as some believe. Although some studies have suggested limiting emissions will bring devastating economic consequences, other studies that rely more on energy conservation and efficiency suggest limits can be reached without too much economic pain. Cutbacks in coal and oil will be partly offset by gains in conservation and alternative energy technologies.

GRADUALISM. Another reason for optimism is that there is a precedent for this accord: the 1987 Montreal Protocol to reduce production of the CFCs that harm the ozone layer. As in Kyoto, CFC production limits were only gradually tightened over the course of a decade, so economic dislocation was minimized. And the accord first applied only to industrialized nations, but now includes developing countries. "The atmospheric concentration of these compounds is coming down--it was effective," says Mack McFarland, principal environmental scientist at DuPont.

The Kyoto Protocol will be far tougher to implement, but it is expected to follow the same path: Limits will slowly be tightened and extended to developing countries. The Bonn deal establishes a fund to help developing countries adapt, and allows industrialized countries to get credits by investing in energy-efficient projects abroad.

Some companies in the U.S. have already embraced the goals of Kyoto. DuPont has pledged by 2010 to reduce its greenhouse emissions to 65% below 1990 levels. The company has shown it can live up to its promises: It was once the world's largest maker of CFCs, but now has ceased production.

The Kyoto Protocol and Bonn accord will cause economic disruption, especially in fossil-fuel industries. But the scientific consensus is that failure to take action could lead to widespread droughts, disruption of agriculture, and flooding of coastal cities. That would create far more economic devastation than Kyoto. Senior writer Raeburn covers the environment from New York.


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