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EWC expert predicts U.S. will observe Kyoto Protocol

by forwarded by Susan Kreifels, East-West Center

The Kyoto Protocol becomes legally binding Feb. 15 for 141 parties. But even though the United States withdrew from the treaty that mandates reduction of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries, an East-West Center environmental specialist predicts the United States will reduce its emissions through domestic actions and legislation.


“The United States will start at home,” said Dr. ZhongXiang Zhang, a fellow in energy and environmental economics at the Center. “I don’t believe that the United States will return to the Protocol anytime soon, but I do believe that the United States will adopt mandatory domestic regulations sometime this decade.”

By developing effective domestic policies, the United States may be considered a credible international partner if it returns to the negotiating table, Zhang said.

Zhang added that President George Bush is likely to continue his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol and international emissions agreements, but increasing domestic and international pressures may soften his stance. Leading Republicans have increasingly supported domestic emissions controlregulations, and U.S. allies will continue to pressure the United States as well. British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged last month to make climate change a top priority of the G8 industrialized nations during Great Britain’s presidency of both the G8 and the European Union.

Foreign pressure will help increase attention to climate issues in the United States. This, combined with domestic pressures, could help bring about a situation in which the Republican presidential candidate in the 2008 election might consider distancing himself from the current president’s climate policy, Zhang predicted. This occurred when George H.W. Bush distanced himself from President Ronald Reagan in the 1988 presidential election regarding the regulation of sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants.

Zhang pointed out that the Republican Party, although it has traditionally opposed the Kyoto Protocol, is divided on domestic regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. He noted, for example, the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, the most detailed bipartisan bill on emissions to date. This bill would have required domestic, mandatory, and economy-wide emissions reductions beginning in 2010. The bill failed on a vote of 43-55 in the Senate in October 2003.

However, the Senate voted 95-0 in July 1997 for the Byrd-Hagel Resolution warning President Bill Clinton not to sign a treaty that would put emissions limits on the United States but no requirements on developing countries. Zhang said those two votes symbolized a “very significant” change in attitude toward climate issues.

Zhang said there are many actions taking place at the state and local levels as well in the United States. For example, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger supported the state’s Air Resources Board requiring auto makers to sell low-emissions vehicles starting in 2009. California accounts for 10 percent of the total U.S. auto market. New York Gov. George Pataki proposed in 2003 the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—a cooperative effort by nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to cut carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Given that the combined carbon emissions from the Northeastern states and California make them the world’s sixth-largest global emitters, the actions in these states make much sense and are very environmentally meaningful, Zhang added.

Business views are also evolving. The “common front” against carbon emissions regulations by the private sector has softened, and positions have become more differentiated, Zhang said. For example, DuPont has pledged to cut its emissions by 65 percent below 1990 levels by 2010.

British Petroleum met its target of cutting emissions by 10 percent below 1990 levels eight years ahead of schedule at no net economic cost.

Although U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol complicates the process aimed to broaden future participation and commitments, U.S. actions will happen faster if the EU and Japan continue to take the lead. “They should push the United States for credible, mandatory domestic actions through political means and trade policy before asking it to take on binding international commitments,” Zhang said.

ZhongXiang Zhang is an energy and environmental economist at the East-West Center. He can be reached at (808) 944-7265 or zhangz@



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