President Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that Russia will move to ratify the Kyoto Protocol received little attention, but may signal that the agreement will finally become legally effective.
That would be welcome, not because Kyoto is a perfect agreement, but because, even with its imperfections, the protocol has several elements that will contribute to a sensible long-term solution to global warming. Foremost among these is Kyoto’s recognition that emissions trading—an American invention now embraced by Europe—can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions at low cost.
Still, the six and a half years that have passed since the Kyoto Protocol remind us that we have more to do. Progress in the international climate negotiations has been painfully slow.
Waiting to address global warming would be a reckless gamble. If present trends continue, greenhouse gas concentrations—during the lifetimes of children born today—will reach levels higher than in the last 50 million years. The Kyoto Protocol, alone, is not the answer. Its limits—requiring industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions roughly 5 percent from 1990 levels—will apply to less than half of the world’s global emissions, because the United States is not participating and major developing countries are not covered. And these limits expire in 2012.
In the next few years it is essential that we shape a new strategy, one that should be based on, or informed by, the lessons we have learned so far about the difficulty of putting a climate change agreement in place.
One lesson is that finding a consensus among 180 nations is asking too much. The obvious fact that we all share one atmosphere led nations to try a single global accord, but the differences between nations are vast and their leadership shifts over time.
A second lesson is that, in the United States, domestic consensus comes first. International agreements require broad political support, which Kyoto has never had. The Bush administration has opposed ratification of the treaty, saying that it could hurt the nation’s economy and noting that countries like China are not covered by it. Treaties rarely produce consensus on controversial topics.
And in the absence of federal limits on emissions, a third lesson has surfaced: nature abhors a vacuum, even in the regulatory arena.
Dozens of states and localities have filled the void, starting their own programs to fight global warming, like the regional compact under development in the Northeast. In addition, the Republican governors of two of the nation’s largest states—New York and California—support tough measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The corporate sector is increasingly stepping forward as well. Under the Chicago Climate Exchange, for example, major companies are building a market for trading emissions allowances.
So what next for global warming policy in the United States without ratifying Kyoto?
Federal legislation must be enacted to require mandatory limits on heat-trapping gases, to ensure that businesses combat global warming in their capital investments and research spending.
Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have sponsored an important bill on this issue. If history is a guide, many businesses may come to prefer uniform federal legislation of this type to an uneasy patchwork of state regulatory regimes.
The United States should also negotiate a trans-Atlantic climate trade agreement under which it and the European Union would accept binding limits on heat-trapping gases and establish an emissions trading program between the two continents. Other countries could then opt in to the agreement.
As part of the accord, the United States and the European Union could agree to redirect agricultural subsidies likely to be reduced in World Trade Organization negotiations toward environmentally friendly biofuels.
The United States should also seek opportunities for bilateral climate change agreements with major developing countries, including China, India and South Africa, to promote clean energy exports and transfer of environmentally friendly technologies. The agreements could provide a framework for these countries to participate in emissions trading, even at the local level.
None of these bilateral or regional agreements would replace the Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by the first President Bush and ratified unanimously by the Senate in 1992, which provides an important forum for work on global warming. Instead, these agreements would supplement the pact, much as bilateral and regional trade agreements supplement the World Trade Organization today.
Churchill is widely credited with writing: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” There will be many opportunities to evaluate and adjust course in the fight against global warming during the decades ahead. Our success will depend on it.