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Climate Change: Where do we go from here?

Rob Coppock

Implementing the Kyoto Protocol

The current plan to execute the Kyoto Protocol will waste vast sums of money for little environmental gain. A smarter, longer-term implementation plan will reduce global warming more effectively and efficiently.

The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an agreement of historic proportions. Finally, the world is treating global warming seriously. The protocol could put us on a course that is less polluting, less damaging to agriculture and the international economy, and less threatening to human health. However, the protocol as written forces nations and industries into a crash program to slow global warming by dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. The cost to enact the short-term plan will be unnecessarily excessive, and will actually make it more difficult to reach the fundamental emissions reductions required to stabilize the atmosphere for generations to come. The very same slowdown of global warming can be achieved more effectively and for far less cost, however, if a smarter implementation policy with a longer-term view is crafted. Emissions reductions would be phased in over more years, in parallel with the natural replacement of aging equipment, placing much less of a burden on industries and governments worldwide.

Thankfully, implementation of the protocol is far from a fait accompli. There will be a series of meetings leading up to the fourth Conference of the Parties in Buenos Aires in November. There, details are to be decided that will determine the timetable of actions that industries and governments must take. Before any more political momentum builds to ram the plan through, Congress and the world's governments should stop and consider a longer-term plan that can set the world on a more sensible and effective course.

Global warming guaranteed

Climate change is a long-term problem that can only be addressed adequately with a long-term outlook. The overall aim of the Framework Convention on Climate Change is to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of the so-called greenhouse gases at levels that will not be detrimental to human life or the environment. In implementing the framework convention, the Kyoto Protocol has been hailed because it establishes emissions-reduction targets for each industrialized country, a system for emissions trading among countries, projects between industrialized and developing countries, and a fund for developing country action. But what has been lost in the hoopla is that, even with the protocol's tough limits, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will have doubled by the end of the 21st century.

Ice core samples drilled in Greenland and Antarctica indicate that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were fairly constant at roughly 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. They have risen to about 360 ppmv today. The protocol calls for industrialized nations to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012--I use the median date of 2010. But even then, the world will still be pumping substantial amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

The key fact that is overlooked is that it takes hundreds of years for an injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to dissipate. Although each atom of carbon in the atmosphere exchanges with the biosphere on an average of every four years, the atmosphere still exhibits the results of emissions from the early Industrial Revolution. Just as important, the concentration is cumulative. Even if all the world's nations cut annual emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, and held them there into the future, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would continue to rise. Furthermore, since developing country emissions are almost certain to exceed those from industrialized nations soon due to population growth and economic expansion, full implementation of the Kyoto protocol without additional measures would have little impact on the total accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after a few decades. To keep atmospheric carbon dioxide at its current concentration is virtually impossible, even if the world's economies were drastically altered. The conclusion: Even with extreme short-term sacrifice, we are already committed to doubling the pre-industrial concentration. We will ultimately have to adjust to a warmer world.

The good news is that a doubling of carbon dioxide, though seemingly dramatic, is manageable, as we will see. It is not clear, however, how far beyond doubling we can go without triggering major environmental changes. But even if emissions rates were to increase somewhat over recent decades -- a perhaps unavoidable outcome if populations and economies grow, increasing the emissions from power plants, vehicles, and heating and cooling buildings, the greatest contributors -- it would take at least until 2150 to quadruple pre-industrial levels. And that would probably require returning to a coal-based energy system, another highly unlikely scenario, given industrial changes of the last 150 years. Doubling the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is virtually guaranteed, while quadrupling it, or perhaps a bit more, seems to be the upper limit.

Given these boundaries, a realistic goal of international action would be to curb emissions to ensure that no more than a doubling of pre-industrial atmospheric concentrations occurs before the latter part of the 21st century. So far, the Kyoto agreement seems on target.

Is a doubling tolerable?

Before we consider how fast the world must act in order to hold concentrations to a doubling, let us consider if this level is tolerable.

Among the effects of pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, two are particularly significant for climate change. First, it raises the average global temperature. This, in turn, changes the energy level in the atmosphere and oceans, which alters the earth's hydrologic cycle--the closed system of precipitation to earth and evaporation back to the skies.

There is direct, compelling evidence from measurements of bore holes in rock from many parts of the world that the 20th century has been substantially warmer than recent centuries. Not only has this century been the warmest of the last five, but the rate of temperature change is four times greater than that for the four previous centuries. These measurements show the present-day mean temperature to be a little more than 1.0°C warmer than five centuries ago. Of this change about half has occurred in this century alone.

There is also compelling evidence that the hydrologic cycle has increased in intensity this century, mostly due to rising global temperature. This could have more immediate and far-reaching environmental, economic, and social impacts than elevated temperature alone. For example, a more intense cycle causes storms to generate more precipitation, which could raise the moisture level of farmlands, affecting crops, and increase storm runoff that leads to floods or erosion of valuable property.

Nonetheless, several studies suggest that the economies of industrialized nations could easily adapt to the climatic consequences of a doubling of pre-industrial atmospheric carbon dioxide. That is because the rate of change will be slow. The trend this century has been about 0.05°C per decade. Investment cycles for most industrial sectors are rapid enough that suitable adjustments can be made along the way. Even agriculture ought to be able to cope. It takes about eight years to bring a new cereal hybrid into production, which would be needed to adjust to differences in soil moisture, and recent experience breeding disease-resistant rice suggests that genetic engineering can reduce this time. It also will not be long before agricultural implements are able to make "on-the-fly" soil-moisture measurement and precision delivery of fertilizer to offset changes measured.

Rising warmth and moisture would also broaden the breeding grounds for insects, most notably mosquitoes, increasing their spread of diseases like malaria, dengue, and yellow fever. However, lifestyle and public health measures such as mosquito control, eradication programs, and piped water systems, which have wiped out these epidemics in the United States, will far outweigh the effects of future climate change.

Even the effort to counter a possible sea level rise of 30 inches by the end of the next century is not likely to be excessive. In urban and industrial locations, the cost of protective sea walls will be worth it. Elsewhere the coastline can be left to find its new level. The previously valuable property on the water's edge will be replaced by formerly inland property that becomes newly valuable because it is now next to water. Obviously there will be winners and losers, but then there always have been. Urban expansion will make winners and losers much more rapidly than climate change.

For industrialized countries, then, a doubling of carbon dioxide is not an economic problem. However, a doubling would definitely change particular ecosystems, and the most important question may be whether significant disruption will result. Plant and animal life in bodies of fresh water and in wetlands will face new conditions due to higher temperatures and altered precipitation, and may have difficulty producing sufficient organic sediment and root material to adjust. Other so-called "loosely managed ecosystems" have more capacity to adjust. Ecosystems in general will be forced to reconfigure into new communities more rapidly than they have since the end of the last ice age. But research indicates they should be capable of adjusting quickly enough to maintain the grand mineral and nutrient cycles upon which life on earth depends.

The story is different for developing countries, however. In areas already sorely stressed by environmental problems that cause considerable human suffering, climate change poses a direct threat to humanity. These nations may not have the money to alter farming so it can respond to changing soil moisture, for example, or to implement widespread control and eradication programs to battle the greater spread of disease by insects. Industrialized nations will have to help meet these new demands, just as with the problems of today. Many already are, moreover, and improvements in established programs should be able to offset the new challenges. Developing nations have so far to go, as is, that the added challenges imposed by global warming represent only a marginal increase. The additional suffering will be real, but pales in comparison to that brought about by much larger forces in these countries, such as war, oppression, and poverty.

If met with good planning, a doubling of the pre-industrial concentration of carbon dioxide poses a modicum of environmental problems, and little if any economic problems. The picture changes completely, however, if we ramp up to a quadrupling of the pre-industrial concentration. The consequences could be massive. Although we cannot say exactly how much temperature will have to rise before we confront serious thresholds, we can make some educated guesses. Various models indicate that crossing the 5°C threshold will change weather patterns and soil moisture enough that U.S. agriculture would have to shift to a completely different set of cultivars. Altered rainfall patterns could combine with dramatically reconfigured ecosystems to change the nutrient flows in soils across the entire Midwest, seriously threatening the productivity of the nation's bread basket. Studies in Texas show that bottomland hardwood forests of the coastal plain might be unable to rebound from fires or storms, affecting the viability of both preserved and commercial forests there.

At some point, continued temperature rise will trigger an even greater global disaster, as well. Salinity and temperature differentials in the oceans are important in driving what is called the deep ocean conveyer, a huge flow that sinks in the North Atlantic, runs around the African cape, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. Up-welling currents from this conveyer carry nutrients to the major fishing areas of the world. There is evidence that sufficient warming could increase precipitation in the North Atlantic basin enough to change salinity and alter ocean temperatures to a degree that would slow or even stop the conveyer. At a minimum, ocean fishing worldwide would be affected. The consequences for weather would be drastic around the world, dwarfing anything that has been dished out by the El Niño Southern Oscillation, a periodic shift in ocean temperatures and flows in the South Pacific. Though nobody knows what the consequences of stopping the deep ocean conveyer would be, it is thought that Europe would cool dramatically as the warm Gulf Stream halts.

The world may be able to adjust to a doubling of the pre-industrial concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. But continued increases will eventually reach a point that can only be called "scary."

Too much too soon

Since the world should be able to handle a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations, but there is reason to worry when levels rise much beyond that, it seems the Kyoto Protocol's overall aim of reducing emissions is the right goal. But ironically, the protocol's provisions may make it harder to achieve the long-term emissions reductions that are needed to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Whether the agreement goes down in history as a watershed event or a costly detour depends upon the details worked out at the November Conference of the Parties in Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, if the signatory nations attempt to fulfill the commitments they made to reduce emissions by 2010, they are likely to take actions that are too expensive and less effective than smarter alternatives.

To start, there is a serious question whether many nations can even hit the target. Only two of the industrialized countries that committed in 1992 to voluntarily reduce emissions to 1990 levels have done so -- the UK, because it eliminated coal subsidies and switched to North Sea gas, and Germany, which shut down inefficient and uneconomical factories in the former East Germany. Both of these steps were one-time windfalls. Now, suddenly, the protocol expects all the other countries that have not been able to reduce emissions over the last seven years to reduce them to five percent or more below 1990 levels in the next twelve years.

Doing so will require concerted effort. In the United States, the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration projects that carbon dioxide emissions will rise 30 percent by 2010 if no actions are taken, requiring a reduction in annual emissions of about 400 million tons to achieve 1990 levels. The Environmental Energy Technologies Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculates that United States emissions could be reduced about half way to 1990 levels by adopting efficiency approaches that would cost about $50 per ton of avoided carbon emissions. If the burden for this reduction were equally spread across all sources of emissions, and costs were passed on to consumers (which they would be), this would correspond to an increase in the price of gasoline of 12 cents per gallon. An American Petroleum Institute study estimated that it would cost about $200 per ton to get all the way down to the 1990 level. Even if actual emissions reductions are less expensive than these estimates, the cost will be considerable. Yet the United States committed to a greater reduction in Kyoto -- 7 percent below 1990 emissions; achieving the additional reduction would cost even more.

For the rest of industry, meeting the Kyoto targets will force companies in virtually every sector to engage in massive retrofitting of equipment, to put in place technology that emits less and/or is more energy efficient, thereby reducing emissions. Retrofitting is almost always more expensive than waiting to install new equipment when old equipment has reached its natural end of life, but retrofitting is the only way to meet the short deadline. Electric utilities will have to tear out thousands of costly pieces of equipment long before their lifetimes have expired, which is normally 25 or 30 years, severely compromising their balance sheets -- and our utility rates. Or they will have to add emissions control equipment to be used until current equipment is retired; when the new, less polluting equipment goes online the installed equipment will no longer be needed.

Equipment would have to be prematurely replaced in commercial and residential buildings as well, to improve the efficiency of commercial equipment, lighting, and heating and ventilation systems, and of residential heating, air conditioning, and lighting systems.

The United States' commitment to reduce emissions more than 30 percent below what they otherwise would be in 2010 will require massive changes that hold deep implications for industrial practices and consumer's habits. There is little evidence that our country, or any other industrialized country, is willing to make the huge investments required on the time-scale set by the Kyoto Protocol. The Clinton Administration's answer is that tax incentives, research subsidies, and trading will enable the United States to meet its target with only "modest" price hikes on the order of 4 to 6 cents per gallon of gasoline. But this assessment assumes we can cut our abatement costs in half thanks to emissions trading with other industrial countries, and by another quarter from trading with developing countries. As we shall see, whether mechanisms will be put in place to realize these cost reductions efficiently is dubious at best. Robert Stavens, an economist and professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, thinks the Administration's claims are optimistic. "It is true that the impact can be relatively small -- if this is done in the smartest possible way. But if we don't do it that way it will cost 10 times what the administration is saying."

There is a further problem with the strategy embodied in the Kyoto protocol. The investments required to meet the targets by 2010 are likely to use up funds that would have been used to replace aging equipment with new, more efficient, more expensive technology. If a utility or manufacturer is forced to spend precious capital on a retrofit, now, it won't have the money to install more efficient equipment later.

And there's the rub. Remember that curbing emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels will not stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. In particular, emissions of carbon ultimately will have to be essentially eliminated. The gain from rushing to meet the targets in 2010 is nowhere near worth the economic pain.

Better ways to reduce emissions

The question, then, is whether it is more effective to require a manufacturer or utility to spend money on retrofits to meet the short-term deadline, or to allow it to phase in more efficient equipment as old machinery becomes obsolete. Let's consider a few examples.

The pulp and paper industry is very energy intensive and creates volumes of pollutants, including chlorine and ozone used to make paper white. Under the Kyoto Protocol, paper manufacturers or the utilities that deliver power to them would have to undertake costly actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, a new bleaching process is being developed that does not require either chlorine or ozone, and would reduce energy consumption by 50 percent. The process has yet to be perfected, and is unlikely to be widely deployed by 2010, but it might be in wide use by 2015. If manufacturers must spend large sums now, investment in the new process will be slowed, delaying its deployment, and thus delaying a natural reduction in energy use and thus carbon dioxide emissions. If the industry did not have to divert funds to short-term reductions, it might even be able to bring the new process online sooner, which would reduce not only carbon dioxide emissions, but chlorine and ozone emissions, and lower energy costs.

In the metal casting industry, there is new technology being developed that would increase the yield of the casting process from 55 percent to 65 percent. The higher yield equates to a reduction in the amount of raw material and electricity needed for processing. Both gains translate into less carbon dioxide emissions. Again, spending money to bring this process online benefits both global warming and the manufacturer's costs. The alternative -- more short-term emissions control -- raises costs for everyone.

Another good example comes from the commercial building sector. Studies show that replacing static insulation (put in walls and roofs to increase thermal resistance) with dynamic systems like computer-controlled windows and sensor-controlled ventilation systems could reduce a building's energy load for heating and cooling by 35 to 45 percent. Even if the technology becomes standard in new buildings, new buildings comprise only two to three percent of the existing building stock in any given year. Nearly 80 percent of the commercial buildings existing in 1997 will still be occupied in 2010. Retrofitting existing buildings with dynamic insulation systems would be extremely expensive; it is far more cost effective simply to wait for the natural turnover to improve the energy consumption -- and therefore carbon emissions - than to force costly retrofits now.

Electric utilities will be among the hardest hit. They will have to add costly equipment that will be used for only a few years beyond 2010. It will then be obsolete, as more efficient generation equipment becomes available. Forcing the short-term expense will rob funds the utilities could use to buy more expensive, but more efficient, equipment when the current generators must be replaced. The expense will raise costs for all customers, and jeopardize the utility's ability to bring online more efficient equipment, which would lower costs for everyone in the long run. Such expenditures are doubly questionable when stabilizing atmospheric concentrations requires so much more in the long run. A much bigger kick would come from wider use of combined systems such as cogeneration, where waste heat from electricity generation is used to power industrial processes or heat buildings. Again, meeting short-term targets will eat up funds and slow options with ultimately bigger payoffs.

When these kinds of case studies are made in industry after industry, it becomes clear that rushing to meet the artificial Kyoto deadline of 2010 will raise short-term costs considerably, and siphon off money that could be used for smarter, long-term investments that will not only achieve the same carbon dioxide reductions, but also lower costs and the emission of other pollutants as well.

There is even less incentive for retrofits in the industrialized nations, because combustion (the principal source of energy) is expected to grow dramatically in developing countries as they become more populated and economically active. The aggregate emissions from developing countries will soon exceed those of the industrialized world. Given that, all the pain of implementing the Kyoto Protocol in industrialized nations will lead to only a pencil-line-thin deviation in the graph depicting carbon dioxide concentrations in the earth's atmosphere.

Failure to comply

There is another reason to favor a longer-term implementation of the Kyoto Protocol: There is serious doubt as to whether countries will make the short-term investments necessary to reach the 2010 deadline.

The proponents of the protocol argue that once proper incentives exist, all kinds of cheap and even profitable ways of reducing emissions will be found. One of the most highly touted is a provision in the agreement allowing countries to trade emissions rights so they can reach the limits they agreed to in the protocol. If a country reduces emissions below its limit, it can sell rights to a country that's over its threshold to apply the amount of the shortfall. For example, if one nation is 10 units below it's limit, it can sell those units to a polluting country. If that country is 15 units above its limit, it would only have to reduce its emission by 5 units to meet its requirement. The proponents point to the resounding success of the United State's sulfur emissions trading scheme used by industry, which has reduced overall emissions to about 40 percent below target at much less cost than was anticipated.

However, emissions trading in the Kyoto scheme will be much more difficult to establish. First, there is a big flaw: The trading is to be between countries. But countries don't pollute; companies and households do. A nation wishing to create a shortfall will have to somehow get industry and homeowners to comply. And a country buying a credit will somehow have to collect the funds from all its polluting sectors. Each of these arrangement will be a practical nightmare.

There are other complications. The most efficient trading programs establish a free market in emissions permits, where private entities execute trades with minimal bureaucratic red tape. This kind of efficiency in unlikely when governments famous for bureaucracy are executing the trades. Also, each trader has to have a recognized emissions baseline so that proper shortfalls and excesses can be negotiated. However, setting baselines for different countries will be extremely difficult; how would emissions or credits from electricity generated in France but consumed in Germany be allocated? Finally, if the U.S. sulfur emissions trading scheme is any guide, there will have to be an overseer of the process that has the power to prevent governments from skewing arrangements to their benefit; establishing who or what will fill that role will be a true challenge. Preferences for organizing the trading system are likely to be in conflict, too; tradition in Europe and Japan favors greater governmental control, whereas the United States has had positive experience with private mechanisms. It is unclear how to address these issues in an international trading scheme.

The Kyoto Protocol also provides for industrialized countries to undertake joint projects with developing countries. An industrialized nation would receive a credit toward meeting its own target equal to the amount of emissions it helps reduce in a developing country. However, this "clean development mechanism" is viewed with suspicion by many in the developing world. They fear that rich industrialized countries will use their greater financial power to avoid emissions restrictions by purchasing emissions reductions from poorer countries and slowing their development in the process. The protocol provides no mechanism for addressing such concerns, nor does it specify how to determine meaningful baselines against which reductions can be measured.

Participation by developing countries is another weak plank in the protocol's short-term platform. The lack of early commitment by key developing countries not only aggravates concerns in the United States and other industrialized countries about international competitiveness, but raises the possibility of developing countries becoming "locked-in" to more fossil fuel intensive technologies. Just as available funds in industrialized countries are likely to be used for retrofits, precluding investments in longer-term alternatives, funds in developing countries might be invested in less efficient energy production technology that will subsequently be expensive to replace. The lack of commitments from developing countries in the Kyoto Protocol must be changed in the long run. It would be much better if they begin now to develop their power and industrial infrastructure with the most efficient new technologies emerging in the coming decades. Furthermore, the U.S. Senate, which ultimately must ratify the treaty, expressed its unwillingness in a 95-to-0 vote last year to support any treaty not including full participation of developing countries. The Clinton Administration has stated that it will not submit the treaty for ratification until major developing countries have committed.

From the scientific perspective, it is not necessary to involve all developing countries. The eight countries currently producing the largest carbon dioxide emissions are the United States, Russia, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada...and China and India. Adding a few rapidly industrializing countries, such as Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Korea, would encompass well over 60 percent of the world's current emissions and the bulk of the its coal resources, the most carbon-intensive of fuels. Commitment by Europe, Japan, and the United States to reduce their domestic emissions with the possibility of joint implementation among this relatively small set of countries could effectively address the climate change problem.

The list of serious controversies that must be overcome in implementing the Kyoto Protocol is significant. They will make achieving a rational and effective plan in Buenos Aires a few short months from now extremely difficult.

Missing pieces

Indeed, the national negotiators at the Kyoto meeting apparently concluded that the only way to reach agreement, there, was to leave most of the difficult issues to be worked out later. Their scope is daunting. How they are worked out before and during the November Conference of the Parties will largely determine the protocol's value.

Several crucial features have thus far been left out. These include the rules and institutions that will govern the international trading of emissions credits among industrialized countries, and the joint implementation between industrialized and developing countries. Also missing are procedures for identifying whether a nation's actions satisfy the protocol's rules. The equally critical criteria used to judge compliance and any penalties for noncompliance are not specified, either.

The protocol states that the methods by which a country measures emissions, and calculates whether it is meeting emission targets, are to be based on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- an international group of government scientists that has assessed and summarized the science base -- and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice, an entity of the Framework Convention on Climate Change. These must be worked out and approved by the Conference of the Parties. The protocol also specifies that expert review teams, selected from professionals nominated by signatory nations and appropriate intergovernmental organizations, will provide a thorough and comprehensive technical assessment of all aspects of the implementation by a signatory nation. Appropriate guidelines and methods are to be determined at the Buenos Aires meeting. Clearly, there is a lot to be decided at the Conference of the Parties. Yet even if all these issues can be successfully resolved the protocol is still missing features that are crucial for successful climate control.

The first is an adequately long-term perspective. Most glaring is the absence of what might be called "futures trading" in emissions credits. There is a provision which allows a country that reduces its emissions below its commitment in one control period to "bank" that credit for application in a later period. But no credit is given for current actions that would reduce emissions in future periods. This actually creates a disincentive for investments in the massive infrastructure changes and new technologies needed to meet the long-term goal of atmospheric stabilization. For example, if the pulp and paper industry were to invest heavily in developing the new bleaching process between the years 2000 and 2012, but the process was not widely implemented until, say, 2015, it would receive no credit for that investment under the Kyoto Protocol -- even though, in the long term, it would reduce emission by much more than any short-term investment could. A provision should be added to the protocol that allows the possibility of credits for investments made in one phase that will reap benefits in a later phase.

A second missing feature is an effective Secretariat. Not all issues of certification, verification, and compliance in national assessments, emissions trading, and joint implementation can simply be farmed out to external expert teams, as the protocol provides. The protocol establishes a central Secretariat, but it virtually ignores the Secretariat's role and functions. To implement the protocol, the Secretariat will require a high level of technical expertise and considerable manpower, especially if sanctions with teeth are envisioned. The German government has agreed to host the Secretariat, but for this body to effectively implement the protocol, it will need a much more significant stature. The Conference of the Parties should add language to the agreement clarifying the functions of the Secretariat, providing for a competent staff, and establishing a funding mechanism.

Expecting the Conference of the Parties to manage all these large tasks by November borders on the ridiculous. But even after all these questions are answered, there remains yet another step. The overall structure of the implementing scheme needs an appropriate degree of flexibility. The experience of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which also operates in an international arena marked by considerable scientific and technical complexity, is instructive here. Part of its success in handling technical issues that also touch domestic, social, and economic activities is its flexible implementation regime. The international legal order for nuclear energy is a mix of legally binding rules and agreements, advisory standards, and regulations. The mix constantly changes, with today's non-binding standards becoming tomorrow's binding commitments. Suitable flexibility will be equally helpful in the area of climate control. Yet it remains to be included in the protocol's provisions.

A better implementation plan

The likelihood of the Kyoto Protocol being worked out by November is slim. And that is perhaps good. A doubling of the concentration of carbon dioxide is virtually assured. So before the signatory nations spend considerable effort blazing a path to implementing the protocol, they would be much better off to slow down and consider whether a longer-term framework that achieves the same delay in doubling wouldn't make much more economic sense.

Do not misread my argument. I am not calling for a do-nothing-now policy. I am calling for a different, smarter implementation strategy to reach the end-goal of the climate convention. The nations of the world cannot simply wait until technology ages to replace it, because at that time what is needed is unlikely to be available. What the world must do is invest, now, in technology that is far more efficient with much lower emissions and that will be ready for widespread deployment as current equipment is retired.

Neither nations nor industries have limitless resources. Instead of spending excessive amounts of money for costly, short-lived retrofits to meet an arbitrary deadline of 2010, the protocol should encourage research and development investments that will ensure a more effective, less costly fix for the longer-term problem.

Rather than get buried in the myriad bureaucratic details now required of the November meeting, the Conference of the Parties should initiate a strategic assessment of energy-intensive industries, to see where the greatest gains can be made and where technology such as paper bleaching, metal casting, and cogeneration is already waiting in the wings. The signatory nations should develop the equivalent of a critical technologies list for the utility industry, heavy industry, transportation, housing, and so on. The U.S. government's experience in identifying critical technologies for defense, and in technology road-mapping that has proven useful for overcoming problems in the integrated circuit industry, could inform these efforts.

The Conference of the Parties should also focus on creating a system of phased-in emissions targets, rather than the shear wall of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. For example, to lessen the consumption of fossil fuels, it would be much more tenable for the United States government to install a gradually increasing gasoline tax of, say, a few cents a year for 20 years, than to rapidly hike the price by 2010. And if manufacturers can plan on replacing technology over its full life span, they will be much more financially able to develop truly efficient new technology.

Finally, the Conference of the Parties should make provisions for a futures trading system in emissions credits, to inspire investment today that will benefit us all tomorrow.

Should Congress ratify the Kyoto Protocol? It depends on what happens in Buenos Aires. If the Conference of the Parties can achieve the kinds of strategic, long-term adjustments just mentioned, the protocol would be much more cost-effective. Congress should support this kind of plan and help provide the details. If, however, the Conference of the Parties simply pushes ahead on the short-term road it has already set, the world's nations may be better off scrapping the Kyoto Protocol and starting over.

Recommended reading

Jesse H. Ausubel, "Can Technology Spare the Earth?" American Scientist (September/October 1997) 166-178.

William H. Calvin, "The Great Climate Flip-Flop." The Atlantic Monthly (January 1988): 47-64.

Kenneth D. Frederick, David C. Major, Eugene Z. Stakahiv, Climate Change and Water Resources Planning Criteria. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1970, 7-23.

Thomas R. Karl, Neville Nicholls, Jonathan Gregory, "The Coming Climate," Scientific American (May 1997): 78-83.

Louis F. Pitelka and the Plant Migration Workshop Group, "Plant Migration and Climate Change." American Scientist (September/October 1997), 464-473.

Deanne J. Richards, The Industrial Green Game: Implications for Environmental Design and Management. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997.

Vernon W. Ruttan, "Population Growth, Environmental Change and Technical Innovation: Implications for Sustainable Growth in Agricultural Production. In Dennis A. Ahlburg, Allen C. Kelley, Karen Oppenheim Mason, The Impact of Population Growth on Well-Being in Developing Countries. New York: Springer, 1996, 139-173.

T.M.L Wigley, R. Richels, J.A. Edmonds, "Economic and Environmental Choices in the Stabilization of Atmospheric CO2 Concentrations." Nature (18 January 1996): 240-242.


Rob Coppock was principal staff officer for the National Academy of Sciences report, Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming: Mitigation, Adaptation, and the Science Base, and heads a study for the German-American Academic Council on "Climate Change Policy: Understanding the Potential for Effective Alliances and Coalitions."