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Beyond the Kyoto Treaty

Delegates from some 180 countries met in Buenos Aires recently for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. They were looking beyond the Kyoto treaty. It goes into effect next February and is aimed at reducing the greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. Cindy Shiner has an update on the climate change debate.

Storms, floods, drought, rising sea levels, extreme weather - this is partly what the Kyoto treaty aims to diminish by imposing limits on greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

Carbon dioxide is the leading greenhouse gas. It is released through the burning of fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, which provide the power for modern economies. As the planet's temperature rises, climate variability increases. But as the long talks in Buenos Aires demonstrated, the world - and the United States - remains deeply divided over what to do about climate change in the future.

Jason Grumet is executive director of the bipartisan U.S. National Commission on Energy Policy. He says, "We as a nation have two very distinct camps. One camp is desperately concerned with the potentially catastrophic environmental impacts of climate change. Another camp is equally concerned with the potentially catastrophic economic impacts of poorly designed solutions and there is really very little dialogue going on between these two groups.”

The United States and Australia reject the Kyoto treaty, saying its legally binding rules on emissions could hurt economic growth. Washington has expressed concern that developing nations are not held to the same global standards as the United States on reducing emissions.

Mr. Grumet says, "There is the concern that unregulated industries in China, for example, with much lower labor costs will dramatically out-compete domestic industry here in the U.S. And then there's the converse concern that if the U.S. does not act aggressively to take on the challenge of climate change we will start to lose our technological competitiveness."

Other nations could gain the edge in producing more energy efficient cars, for example. David Sandalow, an environment scholar at the Brookings Institution, says climate change is a problem that needs a global solution. “But it's critically important to recall that the average American emits ten times the greenhouse gasses as the average Chinese person roughly, and 15-20 times the greenhouse gasses of the average Indian. As we devise solutions in which everybody has to participate, we need to be sure to do it in a way that gets everybody engaged in an appropriate way.” he said.

Mr. Sandalow says leading developed countries can take additional steps to fight global warming. “We could promote clean energy sources such as wind and solar energy. We could promote the use of natural gas, which is a very clean-burning alternative to some dirtier sources of energy. We can, with an investment of a little extra money, make coal-burning plants much leaner than they are today.”

With only 15 percent of the world's population, wealthy countries have been responsible for more than 50 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The United States is responsible for half of that. The Energy Commission recommended this month that the United States and major developing nations negotiate bilaterally to narrow the gap in their debate over emissions. If more is not done, the United States could face greater global pressure. The Inuit peoples of the Arctic plan to seek a ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that the United States is threatening their existence by contributing to global warming. They say retreating sea ice imperils traditional seal hunts and that would be a final blow to their culture.

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