A Climate Of Despair

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In the U.S., municipal governments are working to duplicate such successes. In 1993, Portland, Ore., became the first U.S. city to implement its own CO2-reduction plan, joining a global partnership of municipal governments that eventually included Denver; Minneapolis, Minn.; Copenhagen; and Helsinki. The goal was to slash CO2 emissions 20% below 1990 levels by 2010. Portland's strategy involved a six-point program that included synchronizing traffic lights, planting 75,000 acres of trees (which absorb carbon dioxide) and buying low-CO2 vehicles for the city's fleet.

By some measures, the program is working spectacularly, with mass-transit ridership increasing 30%, auto commutes to downtown falling 15%, and solid-waste disposal from homes shrinking 13%. But the city's CO2 output has actually risen, mostly because of an unanticipated population boom in the Pacific Northwest. Portland is undeterred, however--pointing out that its European partners, which were spared such demographic shifts, have had success with similar strategies. The city is taking a second look at its own program and revising it as necessary. Efforts are also under way in other U.S. localities, including Miami-Dade County, which eliminated 900 tons of greenhouse emissions a year simply by establishing exclusive bus lanes.

What makes the burden on cities lighter is a sudden burst of environmental awareness from a surprising source: industry. In recent years, more and more multinationals have been turning unexpectedly green, and one example is British Petroleum. Shortly after Kyoto was signed, BP CEO Sir John Browne set his company's goal of cutting CO2 output 10% below its 1990 levels; four years later, he is halfway there. BP has achieved this in part by reducing the amount of greenhouse emissions that flare away in oil fields and refineries. The company is also looking into cutting carbon content in fuel and boosting the efficiency with which it burns. The oil giant and Ford Motor Co. are providing a $15 million grant to Princeton University, partly to study "sequestering" carbon--stripping the greenhouse element from hydrocarbons, burying it underground and burning the hydrogen that remains as clean fuel. "You can run a company on the basis that you only do what the law demands," says Browne. "We use compliance with the law as a minimum and then go beyond that."

Last October, BP, Alcan, DuPont and others joined with Environmental Defense to launch the Partnership for Climate Action, pledging to reduce their greenhouse emissions to levels meeting or exceeding Kyoto's requirements. Ford, Daimler-Benz and Texaco have not yet joined, but last year they did quit the misleadingly named Global Climate Coalition, an industry group opposed to emissions controls. Honda and Toyota have introduced hybrid cars with emissions 40% lower than standard models of the same size.

Where this burst of public and private activity leaves the Administration is anyone's guess. The E.U. and the other Kyoto signatories may continue to proceed as if the protocol is still alive, hammering out such complicated details as emissions trading, which would permit countries that exceed their required cuts to sell credits to other countries, allowing them to fall short of their own. The U.S. has not said it won't attend the July meeting, though things could get awkward if Washington has pulled out of the pact and sends its representatives simply for appearances. So far the White House has not shown any sign that it can be shamed back into the Kyoto fold, though when international outrage grows strong enough, it is possible that even the most intractable government can compromise.

It was only a dozen years ago that the first President Bush was sitting where his son is now, promising to battle the greenhouse effect with what he called the "White House effect." At that time, the science of global warming was a black art, and strategies to combat it seemed more visionary than practical. But the passage of more than half a generation has done a lot to change all that. Science appears to have cracked much of the greenhouse riddle, and both government and business are learning to use that hard-won information in ways that could eventually put the brakes on warming. If Washington wants a role in that effort, the climate-change crisis stands a greater chance of being averted. If not, a far warmer world may one day want to know why.

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