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The Kyoto Delusion

By Robert J. Samuelson
Thursday, June 21, 2001; Page A25

The education of George W. Bush on global warming is simply summarized: Honesty may not be the best policy. Greenhouse politics have long blended exaggeration and deception. Although global warming may or may not be an inevitable calamity (we don't know), politicians everywhere treat it as one. Doing otherwise would offend environmental lobbies and the public, which has been conditioned to see it as a certain disaster. But the same politicians won't do anything that would dramatically reduce global warming, because the obvious remedy -- steep increases in energy prices -- would be immensely unpopular.

By rejecting the Kyoto protocol, which would commit 38 industrial countries to control greenhouse emissions, Bush has discarded all the convenient deceits. He has brought more honesty to the global warming debate in four months than Bill Clinton did in eight years -- and this, paradoxically, is why he is so harshly condemned. He must be discredited because if he's correct, then almost everyone else has been playing fast and loose with the facts.

Bush says that the Kyoto commitments were "arbitrary and not based on science." True. Under Kyoto, the United States would cut its greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below their 1990 levels by the years 2008 to 2012. Japan's target is 6 percent, the European Union's 8 percent. Russia gets to maintain its 1990 level, and Australia is allowed an 8 percent increase. Developing countries (Brazil, China, India) aren't covered. These targets reflect pragmatic diplomacy and little else.

Because so many countries are excluded, it's also true -- as Bush indicates -- that even if Kyoto worked as planned, the effect on greenhouse gases would be almost trivial. In 1990, says the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, totaled 5.8 billion tons of "carbon equivalent." The EIA predicts that if nothing is done, emissions will rise 34 percent to 7.8 billion tons by 2010. With Kyoto, the increase would be only 26 percent to 7.3 billion tons. The reductions of industrialized countries would be more than offset by increases from developing countries.

Finally, Bush is correct when he says that reaching the Kyoto target would involve substantial economic costs for Americans. Strong U.S. economic growth has raised emissions well above their 1990 level. To hit the Kyoto target would require a cut of 30 percent or more of projected emissions. Under the Clinton administration, the EIA estimated that complying could raise electricity prices 86 percent and gasoline prices 53 percent. Higher prices are needed to induce consumers and businesses to use less energy (the source of most greenhouse gases) and switch to fuels (from coal to natural gas) that have lower emissions.

Europeans boast they've done better, implying that America's poor showing reflects a lack of will. By 1998, the 15 countries of the European Union had reduced greenhouse emissions 2.5 percent below the 1990 level. But the comparison is bogus, because Europe's performance reflects different circumstances -- and luck. Through 1998, only three countries (Germany, Britain and Luxembourg) had reduced their emissions, and these improvements were mostly fortunate accidents. The shutdown of inefficient and heavy-polluting factories in eastern Germany cut emissions. And in Britain, plentiful North Sea gas propelled a shift from coal. Generally speaking, slow population and economic growth -- meaning fewer cars, homes and offices -- helps Europe comply with Kyoto. From 1990 to 2010, the European Union's population is projected to rise 6 percent compared with a 20 percent U.S. increase.

The Clinton administration expressed alarm about global warming even while delaying effective action. Under Kyoto, countries can buy "rights" to emit greenhouse gases from other countries where -- in theory -- reductions could be more cheaply achieved. Called "emissions trading," this approach was championed by Clinton. But as David Victor of the Council on Foreign Relations argues in his book "The Collapse of the Kyoto Protocol," the scheme is an unworkable sham. Some countries -- notably Russia and Ukraine -- got emissions targets well above their needs. So they could sell excess emission "rights" to Americans. The result: The United States wouldn't cut its emissions and neither would Russia or Ukraine. Because Europeans distrusted this and other U.S. proposals, the final negotiations over Kyoto deadlocked last year.

As Bush says, we know that global temperatures are rising -- but we don't know the speed or the ultimate consequences. On all counts, his candor seems more commendable than the simplifications and evasions of his critics. And yet, his policy has stigmatized him as an environmental outlaw and earned him ill will in Europe and Japan. These are high costs. What went wrong? Just this: People say they like honesty in politicians, but on global warming, the evidence is the opposite. People prefer delusion. Kyoto responded to this urge. People want to hear that "something" is being done when little is being done and, in all likelihood, little can be done.

Barring technological breakthroughs -- ways of producing cheap energy with few emissions or capturing today's emissions -- it's hard to see how the world can deal with global warming. Developing countries sensibly insist on the right to reduce poverty through economic growth, which means more energy use and emissions. (Much is made of China's recent drop in emissions; this is probably a one-time decline, reflecting the shutdown of inefficient factories. In 1999 China had eight cars per 1,000 people compared with 767 per 1,000 for the United States. Does anyone really believe that more cars, computers and consumer goods will cut China's emissions?) Meanwhile, industrialized countries won't reduce emissions if it means reducing living standards. There is a natural stalemate.

Because this message is unwanted, politicians don't deliver it. Someone who defies conventional wisdom needs to explain his views well enough to bring public opinion to his side. Bush has, so far, failed at this critical task. Ironically, he might have fared better if he had stuck with Clinton's clever deceptions.

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