30 March 2009

The Kyoto Protocol: Is America Undercutting Progress?

At the end of my last post, I mentioned the Kyoto Protocol and the recalcitrance of the United States to ratify this international agreement. Briefly described, it requires thirty-seven of the major industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a particular amount before 2012 (this amount is country-specific), and those ratifying the treaty are bound to its terms. It may not be readily apparent, but U.S. refusal to participate in this regime has extremely significant ramifications for the field of alternative energy. A simple analysis of carbon dioxide release—one of the most important greenhouse gases regulated in the Protocol—reveals that the largest sources are coal (see below), oil, and gas power plants, as well as gasoline-burning automobiles. Thus, any U.S. involvement would produce huge changes for industries and possibly force more vigorous development of alternative energies. American refusal to ratify the treaty seems to continue, however: the New York Times recently reported that the Obama administration has invited leaders from the European Union and sixteen of the world’s major economies to Washington, D.C. for the purpose of discussing energy and climate issues. Written by Andrew Revkin, the article notes that the “Major Economies Meetings on Energy Security and Climate Change” are an extension of similar talks organized by the Bush administration and part of an American attempt to skirt Kyoto and develop its own solution.

This longstanding effort had sparked an argument over whether these kinds of meetings undermine United Nations-brokered treaties like the one under discussion. The Times explains that most of the criticism of summits akin to Obama's hails from developing countries, which believe that the U.S. and other industrialized states are simply attempting to circumvent true global agreement and shut out smaller governments. Other prominent environmentalists, however, believe that despite the fact that these meetings do not take place in a U.N. setting, they are nonetheless essential in that they help find “common ground among the world’s biggest emitters of heat-trapping gases.” As a scholar of international relations, I feel a responsibility to address this issue. Are talks of this nature helpful, or do they simply create an exclusive camp that argues in opposition to the developing community when it comes time to negotiate at the United Nations? It is my belief that, although exclusive in nature, the Major Economies Meetings on Energy Security and Climate Change will be important because they can bring the United States to the negotiating table on an issue that they have traditionally been very disinclined to discuss. It is this kind of meeting that may lead to some of the most needed developments in alternative energy and combat climate change.

The battle for environmental causes is not a new one. It was only in 1997, however, that the Kyoto Protocol was signed. Internationally renowned, the Protocol represents one of the first truly compulsory international covenants on greenhouse gases, but continued U.S. refusal to ratify it is an indicator that there are some critical flaws. Indeed, domestic support is still very weak because Kyoto does not place binding targets on some of the heaviest polluting developing countries. In order to understand why an alternative treaty is a necessity, we must flush out a few important conditions. First, I note that serious terms are imposed upon some industrialized countries while exempting many others such as Ch
ina—one of the world’s leading emitters—from mandatory standards. Second, it must be acknowledged that the United States has historically been among the top five highest polluters (see right). Lastly, recall that the U.S. government has repeatedly voiced its refusal to sign any environmental accord that exempts others, citing economic concerns. Specifically, the U.S. is concerned about its industries’ competitiveness when restricted by the Protocol when other international companies are not. Combined, these factors practically force the need for an additional agreement that brings in the United States. Indeed, as the BBC reported, U.S. non-participation would produce less than a 5% average reduction in world greenhouse gas emissions, thus rendering it ineffective. And, nearly four years after the treaty came into effect, it is obvious that the U.S. will not be changing its policy toward the pact in time to make any real difference (Kyoto’s terms end in 2012). Obama has already become known as a president that has reversed some of the previous administration’s decisions rather quickly. Unfortunately for Kyoto, Obama’s call for an independent meeting of leading economies is compelling evidence that he has no intentions of reversing the Bush administration's position in this matter.

I do not believe that the international community should reward what appears to be diplomatically immature behavior on the part of the United States, but I agree with National Wildlife Fund president Larry Schweiger in that policy makers should recognize the extreme consequences of not having this economic giant on board and consider any reasonable alternate efforts the U.S. makes to reduce its emissions. True enough, Obama’s meetings will shut out many developing countries. The Protocol does not currently obligate these states to make any reductions, however, the meetings will involve those that are subject to targets while also including some key governments that are not (China), making it not entirely private in nature. Additionally, this makeup is perhaps an appropriate one: without sounding too pretentious, it must be acknowledged that those invited include both the worst offenders and the biggest economies in the world. And if the hurdles rendering Kyoto ineffective are economic ones, then an independent meeting of countries party to these problems may be the only way to achieve any real progress. These kinds of agreements place necessary pressure on world governments, and by forcing reductions of harmful emissions they can encourage the growth of alternative energy. I contend that complaints about exclusivity, especially when voiced by a group that is not coerced into action, undercut the true spirit of environmental cooperation. Accentuating petty differences to stop any potential moves forward is deplorable, and as a generation that will greatly affect the environment's future, we have a responsibility take action.


  1. I agree to a great extent that the United States’ refusal to participate in the Kyoto Agreement has significant ramifications to the implementation of alternative energy. Great sources and data! Yet, while the United States continued to not acknowledge or sign the Kyoto Protocol and that Obama administration has invited leaders from the European Union and 16 of the world’s major economies to Washington, D.C. for the purpose of discussing energy and climate issues, I believe Obama should be given credit on his swift response on the issue of alternative energy soon after he reigned as President of the United States. On the surface, it might seemed like Obama established his stance against the Kyoto Protocol by setting up another group, so to speak, of his own. Yet, adding onto your discussion in the last paragraph, I believe it could have been a wise move. As you mentioned in your post, the Protocol was drafted back in 1997. Considering 12 years have passed, the industrial and economic world has prospered and altered a great deal compared to back then. Emission levels needed to support the human race with improvements of technology and increase in quality of life, has possibly risen. Hence, I would say Obama’s move of initiating a new page of discussion and drafting new terms with leaders around the world made a lot of sense. Maybe Obama would also write a new page to alternative energy. Let’s hope for the best! In addition, what would you say about the potential ability of participants in the Kyoto Protocol to reach the target emission level by 2012? Are there any data to track the participants’ progress since 1997? How strongly are those participants adhering to the agreement in the Protocol.

    Just a sidenote: while China emits the greatest amount of waste energy in absolute terms, United States actually emits a larger amount per capita. I read that somewhere recently, just wanted to add this in.

  2. Thank you Joseph for your comprehensive look at the way the US is affecting global progress on the issue of alternative energies and carbon dioxide emissions. I think you did a good job of explaining both why it is important that the US be involved in treaties like Kyoto and why they have declined to ratify the treaty. That being said, I wish you had further explained why other countries are exempt from the same standards and targets as the US and other developed countries. I wonder how much of an affect could the US have on carbon emissions had it ratifies Kyoto when other countries were not being held to similar standards. You call the US diplomatically immature in their refusal to sign Kyoto but why aren’t you similarly harsh to the uneven nature of the treaty as a whole? While I agree that the US should be held to higher standards given its prosperous economy, its advancements and because they hold a good portion of the blame for our emissions problems it seems like as you go on to state, the US is working in its own ways to find alternative plans and perhaps their means will result in a more effective end. I thought you did do a good job of including this angle at the end by tying together how economical concerns are affecting negotiations and thus including them may result in more effective treaties. Lastly, I think your first paragraph may benefit from some consolidation. I got a little lost during the first paragraph and I think getting to your argument sooner might benefit the reader.


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