The Climate Protectors Need U.S. Leadership and Ingenuity
by Michael Zammit Cutajar(*)
BONN The debate surrounding the recent decision by the
president of the United States not to treat carbon dioxide as a
pollutant to be regulated under the U.S. Clean Air Act has been
accompanied by criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol and its scientific
The 1997 protocol, which is not yet in force, assigns targets to the
United States and other developed countries for limiting their
emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Three
concerns expressed in this context invite comment.
The Kyoto Protocol is unfair because it does not assign
emission limitation targets to developing countries, including
populous industrializing countries such as China and India.
The developing countries, which are not covered by the first round
of emission limitation targets under the protocol, account for some
40 percent of current global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel
combustion (the main source of greenhouse gases). This amounts
to some two tons of carbon dioxide per head, whereas the
developed countries average some 12 tons and the United States
alone emits more than 20 tons per head. Fairness suggests that the
latter countries act first to limit emissions. Equity and differentiated
responsibility are among the principles that guide the 1992 UN
Framework Convention on Climate Change and also underpin its
The protocol would cause serious harm to the economy of the
The economic impact of emission limitation has to be carefully
evaluated. The protocol does not prescribe domestic limitation
measures; each state party is free to choose the approach that
makes most sense in its national circumstances. In some
circumstances, shifting from carbon-intensive coal to cleaner fuels
can make good economic sense. Moreover, the protocol provides
a great deal of flexibility to parties for meeting their emission
targets, notably through the use of emissions trading, other
"offshore" mechanisms and accounting for the absorption of
carbon by sinks such as forests and farmland. This flexibility is
intended to lower the costs of compliance.
The state of scientific knowledge of global climate change -
causes, effects and responses - is incomplete.
Scientific knowledge of climate change has been improving
steadily. The precautionary principle, which was embraced by the
framework convention, states that lack of full scientific certainty
should not be used as a reason for postponing action to combat
Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
have found stronger evidence than before of the impact of human
activity on the stability of the global climate, and of the adverse
effects of climate change, especially on poor and vulnerable
people in all countries. These reports provide a sound scientific
basis for precautionary measures.
The 1992 convention is accepted by virtually all states. It was
signed for the United States by President George Bush and ratified
during his administration. Its principles offer a unifying platform for
an equitable and effective global strategy to address climate
change, progressively engaging all countries. The Kyoto Protocol
is designed to be a step in this strategy.
It is to be hoped that the current review of climate change policy
by the U.S. administration will lead to a renewal of the
constructive engagement of the United States in the climate change
negotiations that are due to resume formally in July.
America has the world's biggest economy, is by far the largest
source of greenhouse gas emissions and bears the greatest
responsibility for dealing with their consequences. It also has the
greatest capacity to find innovative and profitable technological
responses to this challenge. This is an opportunity for it to
demonstrate political and industrial leadership and ingenuity.
(*)The writer heads the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention
on Climate Change.