On Nov. 25, an international conference on global warming collapsed at The Hague and was almost completely ignored by U.S. media obsessed with the election controversy in Florida. The conference was a last-ditch effort to salvage the Kyoto Accord of 1997 and its collapse could have much greater implications for both the United States and the world than who is sworn in as President on Jan. 20.
The story began at a 1992 conference in Rio de Janeiro, where industrialized nations were asked to commit to a reduction of carbon dioxide gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Carbon dioxide is both the primary greenhouse gas and a major gas pollutant emitted by most industries and internal combustion engines.
The Kyoto conference, in effect, extended the deadline to 2012, but the U.S. Senate voted 95-0, with five abstentions, that the U.S. should not be a signatory. The U.S. did become the last industrialized nation in the world to sign in late 1998, but the action was meaningless since it still had to be ratified by a hostile Congress. The Hague conference was an effort to come up with an agreement acceptable to both the United States and other nations, particularly those of the European Union.
The controversy centers on two issues: Emissions trading and so-called carbon sinks. With emissions trading, each nation, based on population or gross national product, would be allocated a certain number of “pollution credits” in the form of levels of carbon dioxide emitted. If a country did not need its full credit, for example a high population nation with little industry, an industrialized nation could buy them. This allows the levels of emissions to stay the same while letting industrialized nations have higher than allocated levels of emission.
All industrialized nations could potentially benefit from emissions trading, but carbon sinks, at least in the short term, are of benefit only to heavily forested countries such as the United States or Canada. Older industrialized nations, such as Germany and France, are strongly opposed to giving North America “something for nothing.”
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by vegetation through the process of photosynthesis. In 1992, a research team led by Princeton University’s Jorge Sarmiento said North American forests soak up so much carbon dioxide that they offset the emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuel in both the United States and Canada. If true, this would give both countries a free ride in terms of by how much they would have to reduce their emissions.
This raised a howl of protest from countries such as Germany and France that have very little forest land, particularly when a 1999 computer study said forests would capture no more than 30 percent of North American carbon dioxide emissions. This was the context in which 180 countries met at The Hague in an attempt to iron out some kind of a compromise.
The conference began with few hopes of success because of calls that the United States cut its emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels, a cut that would necessitate a 30 percent overall reduction below today’s energy use. Nevertheless, after 13 days of often-acrimonious debate, Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott thought he hammered out a compromise. He got the United States to agree to a 5 percent reduction over the next 10 years on the condition that some of the reduction would be credited to forests and fields absorbing carbon dioxide at an agreed-upon level.
On Nov. 25, Prescott presented the compromise to the assembly and was astounded when the environmental ministers of France and Germany, both members of the Green Party, refused to accept it. Furious, Prescott stormed out of the meeting saying, “That’s it. I’m gutted!”
Dominique Voynet, the French minister, was blamed by Prescott for the failure but, in the British weekend newspaper The Independent, she blamed the United States, saying its proposals were neither reasonable nor acceptable.
Whoever was at fault, the United States is getting the blame in European newspapers, which are castigating this country for “bullying and recalcitrant behavior” and “a refusal to change its profligate lifestyle.” There is some speculation that EU members want to wait until after the U.S. election to get a final agreement, theorizing that if Al Gore wins the Presidency, he will be open to a more liberal reduction. In the meantime, a spokesman for Greenpeace said the meeting “will be remembered as the day when the world’s governments abandoned their promise to protect the planet Earth.”
Clair Wood taught chemistry and physics for more than 10 years at Eastern Maine Technical College in Bangor.