U.S. clash on global warming

A new Department of Energy report undermines the position of U.S. negotiators at a U.N. conference on reducing greenhouse gases.

Published November 17, 2000 9:00AM (EST)

For the past few days, people attending a United Nations conference on global warming in the Hague have been approaching scientist Marilyn Brown. They want her to explain one thing: the curious timing of her pivotal new Department of Energy report, which was released on Wednesday.

"People are saying, 'Why release it now in the midst of negotiations?" says Brown, who prepared the study for the Department of Energy and is speaking by phone from the Hague. "They want to know why we didn't release it before."

The question of timing is an important one since Brown's study, the most recent from the United States government related to global warming, states emphatically that the country can be doing a hell of a lot more to reduce industrial emissions of carbon-based gases. According to the report, reduction goals can be accomplished by offering American companies financial incentives to reduce their emission levels, funneling more money to researching new technologies and pursuing other strategies to promote efficient energy consumption.

The report's findings greatly complicate -- even undermine -- the official position of American negotiators at the United Nations conference in the Netherlands. They contend that the U.S. can't do all that much to lower emission levels domestically and needs to rely heavily on such strategies as "buying" reduction credits from other countries to meet the targets defined in the treaty.

Brown, the chief investigator in the two-year study, is a deputy director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which operates under contract with the Energy Department. She is representing the department at the conference but is not one of the U.S. negotiators, and she describes the differences between her stance and that of the official government delegation as "awkward."

"Some people question my sanity and tell me I've gone up off my rocker by advocating these technologies," she says. "But I'm just convinced there's a long way we can go at little or any cost to the economy."

Her belief -- and the report itself -- flatly contradict the assertions of many oil companies and other business interests that any effort to cut emissions significantly will cause a drastic increase in energy prices. Yet some environmentalists fear that the report may have been released too late to have a major impact on the negotiations. Brown says she and her colleagues intended to issue it earlier but were delayed because of reviewers' questions. But she is glad that the report at least came out during rather than after the talks.

The issue is so contentious because the United States, with just 4 percent of the world's population, emits the most carbon dioxide -- 23 percent of the global total -- and yet is advocating for an extremely flexibile plan to reduce its share. Three years ago, world leaders gathered in Japan and agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, which gives industrialized countries until 2012 to collectively reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 percent below the 1990 levels.

Under the treaty's terms, the U.S. is supposed to reduce its own gases by 7 percent below 1990 levels. Yet by last year, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were 13 percent above the 1990 level, complicating the prospects of meeting the treaty's goals.

This month's conference is supposed to determine exactly how nations can reach those numbers. Although some developing countries have ratified the treaty, so far no industrialized countries have. Yet the U.S. and other Western nations must approve the treaty in order for it to have any substantial effect.

The Clinton administration negotiated the treaty, with last-minute intervention by Vice President Al Gore at a difficult point in the discussions. Yet it has not been submitted to the Senate, which must approve it. Since fossil fuels play a key role in every sector of modern life -- from heating our homes and offices to running our cars -- many politicians fear it will significantly drive up the cost of energy and disrupt the booming American economy.

The fate of Kyoto, in fact, could hang on the outcome of the current presidential crisis. Should Gore succeed in winning the White House, he is expected to push for ratification. George W. Bush's commitment is far less certain, given his publicly expressed doubts about whether human activity is really causing global warming. Many environmentalists hope that, in the end, the issue will become depoliticized and dealt with in a nonpartisan manner no matter who becomes president.

Global warming is already being blamed for the strange weather patterns and other ecological disturbances observed across the globe in recent years, from rising ocean levels to the melting of polar ice caps. In Canada, the food supply for the Inuit population could be threatened. Some island nations are already battling the effects of higher waters lapping their shores. NASA scientists have observed that the Greenland ice sheet melting away, and temperatures in the North Sea have risen 8.4 degrees just over the last six years.

Global warming is believed to occur when the sun's heat gets trapped in the atmosphere by carbon-based gases, primarily carbon dioxide, which are emitted from burning fossil fuels like oil and coal. A recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world's temperature could climb by as much as 11 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years -- far more than previously predicted.

"If we don't abate greenhouse emissions, studies have shown there will be a lot of damage especially with serious storms and droughts and extreme weather, not to mention the rising of sea levels, taking perhaps a third of the Florida Everglades away from us," Brown says. "So if that's one of your favorite vacation spots, your grandchildren might not be able to take advantage of that."

The world first addressed climate change collectively in 1992 at a gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where representatives adopted the nonbinding goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissons. The failure of almost all countries to attain the goals specified in the Rio agreement spurred the negotiations leading to the Kyoto Protocol.

One continuing bone of contention is that the treaty includes binding targets for industrialized nations but not for developing countries. The U.S. position is that the targets should be binding on everyone; developing countries counter that the West is largely at fault for the problem in the first place and should take the most responsibility in dealing with it. Binding them to emission reduction goals, they say, will severely limit their development potential.

The conclusions laid out in Brown's DOE study conclusions clearly bolster the hand of environmentalists demanding that the government take strong action. "The report is an independent view from a government laboratory and it might have a higher level of credibility than other government reports because it's clearly not intended to be in line with the U.S. negotiating position," says Michael Oppenheimer, an atmospheric physicist at Environmental Defense, a nonprofit advocacy group in New York.

Oppenheimer adds that the report is significant because it is based on recent economic figures rather than those from several years ago. "Those limited number of companies that have been using the cost argument as a protection against a need to act just had the argument torn away from them," he says.

U.S. negotiators in Kyoto are advocating to keep all options open to decrease greenhouse gas levels -- including relying heavily on "emissions trading" with other industrialized countries. This strategy would essentially allow the United States to not reduce its own levels but instead to buy pollution "credits" from other industrialized countries that surpass their specified targets. Another controversial strategy is a "clean development mechanism," or CDM, which involves industrialized nations retrofitting factories and power plants in developing countries and earning credits for the reduction of emissions achieved through those investments.

Another mechanism U.S. officials favor is a process called sequestration, which would allow countries like Japan, Canada and the U.S. to include in their calculations the degree to which their forests lower the levels of greenhouse gases. Masses of vegetation -- also called "sinks" in ecological lingo -- absorb carbon dioxide. In the U.S., for example, sinks soak up about 300 million metric tons of the chemical, a significant portion of the country's total reduction target.

U.S. negotiators have not indicated how much credit they want for sink activity. But representatives from the European Union rejected the use of this technique on Thursday, saying in a statement that "it does not solve remaining problems for the future."

The U.S. effort to maintain maximum flexibility has given it a bad rap internationally on the issue. "By trying so hard to preserve their options, the U.S. has created the impression that that's all they want to do," says Nancy Kete, who is attending the Hague conference as director of the World Resources Institute's Climate, Energy and Pollution Program.

But the sink issue is not dead yet. The past week has involved negotiators deciding what they will or will not accept. But the officials with the real political and legal authority to reject or approve the treaty's terms for each country are government ministers, who are scheduled to arrive on Sunday. The parties to the Kyoto Protocol and those attending the current conference do not actually vote on the treaty proposals; instead, the process works through a series of never-ending meetings to see if all parties can come to an agreement they feel they can sign.

Emissions trading and CMD are among the most controversial issues. To some, these strategies are the ultimate triumph of the free market. Supporters argue that they provide a financial incentive to developing countries to reduce their emissions and encourage industrialized nations to invest abroad, where it might be cheaper to retrofit a factory to save energy than it would be at home. "Entrepreneurs looking for cheaper reductions abroad should be encouraged," says Oppenheimer. "Why throw up a road block?"

Opponents of the U.S. position have two fundamental objections. Developing countries and the European Union believe that it is unethical for countries like the U.S. to essentially buy or invest their way out of reducing their own emissions. The second concern, expressed mainly by environmentalists, is that these transactions would be so complicated and filled with potential loopholes that they won't end up reducing emissions. Many environmentalists believe that these strategies must be combined with more stringent requirements.

"The United States is working right now on how they don't have to cut pollution at all or do it overseas," says Philip Radford, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace U.S.A. "This [the new report] is a great example of how we can do it at home and move forward as a leader, rather than following other countries or demanding that they take the lead ahead of us."

Brown's team spent two years researching and analyzing the impact of dozens of potential policies and hundreds of technologies on carbon-based emissions and the U.S. economy. The final report, called "Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future," has pinpointed a number of strategies to cost-effectively reduce air pollution, greenhouse emissions and domestic dependence on oil.

The report recommends everything from using voltage regulators to reduce the power consumption on home electronics to developing alternative energy sources like wind, solar power and ethanol, which is made from processing crops into liquid fuels. Other recommendations include saving energy by lowering energy waste at power plants, since many operate well below maximum efficiency, and changing regulations making it easier to sell excess energy back to utility companies.

How negotiations proceed next week could be key to how countries approach this issue in the near future. Many environmentalists and government officials believe that strict adherence to an international treaty provides the only chance to stop global warming. And they are concerned that the concept still has high-profile skeptics like Bush, who has challenged the science linking the burning of fossil fuels to global climate change.

Brown fears that such skepticism represents a real threat to the Earth's environmental health. She warns that apathy about the issues can only lead to severe problems down the line. "If we don't institute these procedures, I think our credibility as leaders will eventually be questioned as the evidence mounts of global climate change," she says.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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