The Kyoto Protocol, endorsed by the Clinton administration, requires that by 2012, the industrialized nations will have cut their carbon gas emissions to 5 percent below their 1990 levels the U.S., which accounts for at least one quarter of "greenhouse gas" emissions despite comprising only 4 percent of the world population, is slated for a 7 percent cut from 1990 levels. Reducing emissions, of course, is a painful process for industrialized nations, because it requires cutting back on coal-burning power stations and on the consumption of gasoline and other oil-based fuels. To understand the magnitude of that pain in the U.S., it is worth noting that America's booming economy is continuing to produce substantial annual increases rather than reductions in carbon gas outputs.
Forests as 'Sinks'
The U.S. Senate remains overwhelmingly skeptical of a treaty that would inevitably prove costly to the nation of whom it requires the greatest cuts, and against that background U.S. negotiators are trying to find ways of easing the load required by the treaty. Although it has been agreed that countries such as the U.S. will be able to buy polluting "rights" from countries that produce less than their limit of carbon gases to cover inevitable shortfalls in achieving U.S. targets in other words, pay other countries to increase their own cuts that could still prove to be a costly solution. So U.S. negotiators are demanding that the treaty recognize the ability of forests to function as "carbon sinks," soaking up carbon gases in the best-case scenario for Washington, its existing forests and forestation programs would cover as much as half of its required emission cuts should other parties to the treaty accept the principle. But that may be something of a long shot: European governments and U.S. environmental groups are skeptical of the suggestion that U.S. targets should be halved simply because of the existence of its forests and their function in soaking up carbon gases, which remains a matter of considerable debate among scientists.
But if the Europeans think they have a problem with Washington, the OPEC countries may spring some nasty surprises. After all, for all the talk of win-win solutions in pioneering new technologies in the developing world, the losers in any move to cut back on fossil fuel consumption are inevitably going to be oil-producing countries. Nigeria has demanded financial compensation for oil-producing nations as part of any agreement to cut reliance on their leading export. And we all know how easily they can make their displeasure felt in an industrialized world still mostly dependent on their product.
Europe, of course, is way ahead of the U.S. in terms of cutting its reliance on fossil fuels, but even then it remains doubtful whether many EU countries will achieve their own targets. So even if the Europeans fail to secure U.S. agreement on cuts, itís unlikely to muster the will or the means to impose any penalties. In other words, saving the planet may just have to wait.