Reassessing Kyoto Agreement,
Scientists See Little Environmental Advantage

by Joby Warrick
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
The Washington Post (February 13, 1998)

In the afterglow of December's global warming treaty, euphoric diplomats sometimes likened their achievement to scaling a mountain: 159 nations had overcome treacherous politics and a steep economic divide to clinch a historic accord on reducing greenhouse gases.

Eight weeks later, the metaphor still applies, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the climbers were squarely at the bottom, not at the summit.

While the meeting in Kyoto, Japan, may have been a diplomatic success, scientists are cautioning that its environmental accomplishments may be even more modest than many participants believed at the time. Meanwhile, congressional opponents this week issued new warnings that they intend to kill the Kyoto treaty, and may also block new Clinton administration proposals aimed at increasing energy efficiency.

But even if the accord is ratified and fully implemented, it would barely dent the world's output of greenhouse gases, which are projected to continue soaring through the 21st century and beyond, according to top climate experts who reassessed the agreement in a series of recent articles and interviews. Near the century's end, the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be twice pre-industrial levels, raising global temperatures and possibly causing serious disruptions to agriculture and other ecosystems, the scientists say.

"The best Kyoto can do is to produce a small decrease in the rate of increase," said Jerry Mahlman, director of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University. The treaty "tacitly accepts" that global carbon dioxide levels will more than double, a condition that computer models show will cause "pretty significant climate change" that could last for centuries, he said.

"It's the proverbial hippopotamus in your living room," Mahlman said. "Nobody wants to notice the hippopotamus, but pretty soon it's moving around and wrecking your living room."

The scientific reassessments come as congressional opponents gear up efforts to block ratification of the Kyoto treaty in the Senate. House Science Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) yesterday declared the accord "seriously flawed -- so flawed, in fact, that it cannot be salvaged." A day earlier, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the treaty was "unfair to the United States."

At the same hearing, Stuart E. Eizenstat, the U.S. lead negotiator in Kyoto, defended the accord. "The Kyoto agreement does not solve the problem of global warming, but it represents an important step in dealing with a problem that we cannot wish away," he said in his prepared remarks.

The Kyoto summit produced the world's first legally binding commitments to reduce the global output of carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases. The United States and 37 other industrialized countries agreed to reduce emissions by 2012 to an average of 5.2 percent below what they were in 1990. The U.S. target requires a 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels, which essentially would mean cutting emissions by up to 40 percent compared to what they otherwise would have been 14 years from now. The agreement includes an emissions-trading scheme and other market-based mechanisms to making it easier to comply, but would not force developing countries to accept binding limits on their emissions in the near future.

The targets are far lower than what some environmentalists had hoped for, and what some countries, most notably the European Union, had been pushing. It was clear to the Kyoto negotiators that the treaty would only slow, but not stop, the buildup of carbon dioxide ( ) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But subsequent evaluations by leading scientists indicate that the environmental effects may be so small as to be almost unnoticeable in the near term.

"The Kyoto conference did not achieve much with regard to limiting the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere," Bert Bolin, a Swedish meteorologist and the outgoing chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, wrote in a recent essay. "If no further steps are taken during the next 10 years, will increase in the atmosphere during the first decade of the next century essentially as it has done during the past few decades."

In an analysis published last month in the journal Science, Bolin predicted that levels in the atmosphere will climb to 382 parts per million by 2010 if countries strictly obeyed their Kyoto commitments. That's a jump of 8 percent from 1990 levels of , but it's only 0.4 percent lower than it would have been if no actions were taken. Other scientists have estimated that the Kyoto agreement would slow the projected rise in global temperatures by one-tenth to two-tenths of a degree centigrade by 2050.

Such a reduction would be "an important first step" but would be "far from what is required to reach the goal of stabilizing the concentration of in the atmosphere," wrote Bolin. (Carbon dioxide, which is given off by fossil fuel combustion, is by far the most important of the man-made greenhouse gases that form an insulating blanket around Earth.)

Other climate experts agree with the essence of Bolin's conclusions, if not with all the specifics. But some fear that governments will cite the modest environmental benefits as an excuse for doing nothing. The struggle to prevent global warming is much like the fight to control population growth, says economist Robert Repetto of the World Resource Institute: Small steps now to curb growth rates can pay big dividends down the road.

"Nobody thought in their wildest dreams that Kyoto would solve the climate problem," Repetto said. "If implemented, the achievement at Kyoto will be to get nations off a business-as-usual trajectory and onto a path that peaks and then starts going down."

More substantial reductions in emissions will depend on commitments from developing countries, which in the future will become the planet's biggest producers of greenhouse gases. But in Kyoto, China and India -- already among the world's top polluters -- objected even to vague wording that would put developing countries on a course for binding limits in the future.

"The countries that really need to be involved said 'hell, no' at Kyoto," said David Montgomery, an economist for the consulting firm Charles Rivers Associates. "Everything that matters for an effective agreement was left unresolved."

Negotiators will take another crack at those issues at the next round of talks in November in Buenos Aires, Argentina. And in the meantime, the Clinton administration is hoping to secure a series of bilateral agreements in which key developing countries agree voluntarily to hold down emissions.

Kyoto's most significant achievement may simply have been to create new markets and competition for energy-efficient products -- including fuel cells, solar panels and low-energy light bulbs -- that could make future cuts in emissions easier and cheaper. Indeed, in the weeks since Kyoto there have been a string of announcements by the automotive industry and others of new private initiatives to improve energy efficiency.

"We're in a long, dark tunnel on the climate change problem, but I think we're beginning to see a bit of light at the end," said Adam Markham, a scientist and director of the climate program at the World Wildlife Fund. "It might even be an energy-efficient light."

The sobering reassessment of the treaty comes as the Clinton administration rolls out its first detailed proposals for meeting U.S. obligations under the Kyoto agreement. But while the administration's five-year, $6.3 billion package of tax breaks and research spending is described as only a first step, a broad variety of experts say the measures are far too modest to reshape the country's $500 billion fossil fuel economy.

"It's a good start, but it's an awfully small tail trying to wag an awfully large dog," said John Holdren, a Harvard University professor of environmental policy who has advised the White House on climate matters.

The package would offer tax breaks to consumers and businesses that buy fuel-efficient cars, install solar panels on their roofs or invest money to increase the efficiency of houses and offices. In addition, the White House is seeking to increase research on alternative and renewable energy by about a third over last year's levels.

The administration is simultaneously moving on other fronts to squeeze energy savings from businesses and from government itself, offering, for example, incentives for government contractors who find ways to improve the efficiency of federal office buildings.

"This is put up or shut up," said Joseph Romm, the Department of Energy's deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency. "We believe we can go a long way toward the goal through this voluntary approach."

By relying on incentives and voluntary approaches instead of new taxes or regulations, the package is winning support from many industries, but still meeting with resistance from other quarters.

"It's a waste of money . . . and it's implementation without ratification," said Jonathan Adler of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Even supporters of the president's policy acknowledge that the measures are only a first step -- and probably not a very big one. But on the other hand, said Harvard's Holdren, "you have to walk before you can run"

"If you want the energy system to look different in the next century you have to start now," he said. "We have not yet put in place a package of measures that will do the job. But what we have here is a whole lot more than nothing -- and nothing is what we had until now."


Even if all industrialized countries honor their commitments to reduce pollution, levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to grow.

Concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (parts per million)

With full compliance to Kyoto treaty

1990: 353

2010: 382

With no reductions in emissions

2010: 383.5

SOURCE: Bert Bolin, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

President Clinton has proposed spending $6.3 billion over five years to fight global warming. Here are some highlights of the administration's plan:

* $3.6 billion in tax credits for energy efficiency, including:

* Up to $4,000 per individual for purchasing highly fuel efficient cars.

* Up to $2,000 per individual for rooftop solar electricity and hot water systems.

* Up to $2,000 per individual for home improvements that save energy.

* $2.7 billion in new Research-and-Development spending, including:

* A $277 million increase in funding to develop "new-generation" vehicles that are as much as three times more fuel-efficent than today's cars and trucks.

* A $100 million boost for research on renewable forms of energy, including wind, solar and biomass.

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