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At Year's End Fate of Kyoto Protocol Hangs in the Balance - 2003-12-26

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

As 2003 comes to a close, the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty on climate change, hangs in the balance. Renewable sources of energy show gains in the market place. And, the debate continues over energy policy in the United States.

2004 will be a make or break year for the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty on climate change. At an early December meeting in Milan, Russia sent mixed signals about whether or not it would ratify the agreement. If Russia says no, the Protocol will not go into force because not enough industrialized nations will have ratified it. One hundred-twenty nations have ratified Kyoto so far - including China, India and Brazil and European Union countries. The Bush administration withdrew U.S. support in 2001, saying that the treaty was "fundamentally flawed" and "harmful to its economy."

Patrick Michaels agrees with that assessment. He is a climatologist at the University of Virginia and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a free market policy group. He says the Kyoto Protocol does nothing measurable about climate change, costs too much and sets unreachable targets.

"Europe is not going to meet their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol," he said. "A couple of nations will for reasons that have nothing to do with Kyoto. For instance, Germany based its starting period when the widely inefficient East German economy was still in operation. So, let's stop the posturing here. If you are going to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, probably capping emissions at a certain level is a nice thing, but seeing as if the Europeans can not even do it, why are we wasting our time and money on this exercise, when we should be allowing people to invest in more efficient technologies, which is really the way of the future."

Jonathan Lash disagrees. The president of World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank, says the failure of Kyoto would mean a significant step backward in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Without any global agreement on global climate change, it is likely to be a number of years before the world can again put together some form of international collaboration on limiting greenhouse gases," he said.

Mr. Lash says international collaborationand deal-making will influence Russia's decision on Kyoto.

"Do the Europeans in some form or another offer incentives to the Russians to ratify the Kyoto Protocol? Does the United States in some form or another actively seek to discourage the Russians? Do the Russians in some way communicate in some way what they want? It is the makings of a significant international political story," he said.

Energy will continue to be a big story in 2004. Renewable resources are the world's fastest growing source of electricity generation. Yet solar, wind and geo-thermal power received scant support in the United States energy bill, defeated by the U.S. Congress this year.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Lash expects that as the price becomes more competitive, green power will gain a greater share in the marketplace. And he notes private industry is already taking voluntary steps in that direction.

"The World Resources Institute works with a group of 12 Fortune 500 Companies, ranging from General Motors and Dupont to Alcoa to Kinkos, all of whom have agreed to purchase green power to supply their electricity, that is power not derived from fossil fuels,": Mr. Lash said. "They have made purchases that now amount to 112 megawatts. It is about the environmental equivalent of taking 100,000 cars off the road. It is enough power to drive a small city."

Also on the energy front this year, the White House launched the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy. One billion dollars in the failed energy bill was set aside to develop hydrogen as an alternative fuel and for the development of a hydrogen car by 2015. The issue will be addressed again when Congress resumes in 2004.

Hydrogen can power electricity generating stations and everything from cars to planes. Unlike fossil fuels, it does not produce pollutants when burned. Developing efficient hydrogen-producing technology could take decades, though, and is considered a long-term solution to global warming.

In the short term, Cato Institute analyst Patrick Michaels says free market forces and not government regulation are likely to spur greater energy efficiency.

"No one has ever demonstrated, at least to me, that the government is a better investor in technology than individuals are," he said. "I could leave you with the story of the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles in the United States, which cost well over a billion dollars. The money was given to the three major auto companies, Daimler Chrysler, GM and Ford, to produce an extremely efficient passenger automobile. Well, they never put one hybrid car on the road. Meanwhile the two non-participants, Honda and Toyota, did."

Also on the horizon for 2004, the United Nations, in collaboration with scientists around the world, will begin work on the first global assessment of the condition and productivity of ecosystems. Preliminary drafts of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment are expected by the end of the year.