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Saturday, October 23, 2004

Why it's hard for the US to implement Kyoto

The Kyoto climate change treaty imposes a requirement on its "first world" signatories that they will reduce CO2 emissions by varying amounts, up to 10% of their 1990 levels. Other countries have no obligation under the first-round agreements. Even if the US wished to implement the Kyoto restrictions, it would be difficult in the extreme. The US reduction amount is 7% of the its 1990 CO2 level.

For the US, the big problems are population, economic growth, and competition from countries under no emissions restrictions. Also, 1990 as the benchmark year was carefully chosen by European countries to favor themselves.

1. The population problem.

Kyoto's CO2 reduction requirements are per-country, not per capita. The problem here is clear: in 1990, the US population was 248 million, and in 2010, the US census projects that the population will be 309 million. In order to achieve the Kyoto requirements, per capita C02 emissions would have to drop not by 7%, but 25%. Even if the US economy - and along with it CO2 emissions since 1990 - hadn't grown, achieving this goal would require far more than getting rid of SUVs.

European countries and Japan have had stable or dropping populations, as well as generally slow-growing economies during this interval.

2. The economic problem.

Not only has the US population grown, the US economy has grown considerably since 1990. By 2010, US GDP will be well over double its level in 1990. Since CO2 emissions are a direct function of economic activity, reducing CO2 emissions to the required Kyoto level would clearly require shutting down the economy in the short term. Note that CO2 emissions per unit of GDP have actually been _dropping_ rapidly as the economy gets more efficient, but the economy has been growing faster than the unit drop.

3. Why 1990?

The choice of 1990 is crucial in many ways.

o Russia. 1990 is the last year of Soviet industry, immediately before its economic collapse of the early 1990s.

o Germany. Like Russia, 1990 was the transition year from Communism - and polluting Communist industry - for East Germany, giving unified Germany a "get out of jail, free card" for emissions. Former East Germany had its economy completely restructured and its toxic factories closed. This is a wonderful thing for the world's economy, but definitely sets a low bar for German treaty compliance.

o The US. In 1990, the US was in a recession that hit manufacturing hard, reducing energy consumption and CO2 emissions. By contrast, much of Europe was in an economic boom. Starting in 1991, the US had a period of uninterrupted economic growth that went on for ten years until the third quarter of 2001.

4. Not Enough?

Kyoto advocates point out repeatedly that the Kyoto reductions are "not enough" to achieve meaningful emissions reduction. But even these seemingly low reductions in CO2 are hard to impossible to achieve. If climate change due to human activity is actually taking place and is conclusively judged to be threatening to the ongoing viability of the planet - and the jury is still out on these points - the "managed" strategy of Kyoto isn't the way to achieve it.

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