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Friday, October 03, 2003

Kyoto politics

Today, let's talk about Kyoto. With many Americans focused on security issues since 9/11 and US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's often forgotten that the rest of the world has security priorities too.

Much of Europe, for example, worries almost as much about the threat from global warming as they do about the threat from terrorists and WMD proliferation. As the 2002 Chicago Council on Foreign Relations opinion survey (conducted with the German Marshall Fund) found, 90% of Americans consider terrorism a "critical threat," while only 65% of Europeans (from 6 countries) do. 50% of Europeans consider global warming a "critical threat," versus around 45% of Americans.

This week, Russia has been hosting a major conference on global warming. Russia is an important country to environmentalists right now because it basically has the power to make or break the Kyoto Protocol, which would require states to make real reductions in greenhouse gases (ghg) over the next 5 to 10 years.

For the treaty to go into effect, states emitting 55% of the world's emissions have to agree. The US emits about 25%, though for the purposes of this agreement the US emits 36% because developing countries are exempt from the requirements. That exemption relates to the fact that people living in affluent countries emit many, many times as much carbon dioxide as people in poor states. The average American, for example, emits nearly 20 times as much ghg as the average Chinese. Americans love SUVs and air conditioning, a couple of luxuries most Chinese do not have.

The US, of course, is not a member of the Kyoto agreement since Bill Clinton didn't send the treaty to an unwelcoming US Senate -- and the Bush administration has withdrawn the US from the negotiation process.

The EU, Japan and Canada ratified Kyoto in 2002, so the treaty now has commitments from states emitting 44%. It needs another 11% of the world's ghgs.

Russia emits 17%. Thus, Russia's embrace of Kyoto would activate the treaty. Absent Russian or US assent, the treaty cannot become international law. It's as simple as that.

The Russians, as it turns out, already easily meet Kyoto reduction requirements because they closed down a bunch of old and dirty industries at the end of the cold war.

So why don't they simply ratify now?

Well, President Putin, as was widely reported, said this week: "an increase of two or three degrees wouldn't be so bad for a northern country like Russia. We could spend less on fur coats, and the grain harvest would go up".

Delegates apparently took this as a joke because most of them view global warming very seriously. For instance, scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine "estimate that climate change may already be causing in the region of 160,000 deaths...a year." They also reported that could double by the year 2020 -- even taking into accounts improvements in health care. The main problem seems to be new disease outbreaks for malaria -- and from malnutrition.

Actually, Putin was not embracing global warming. Russia is playing hard to get because it wants to assure very high rewards for its past reductions in ghg emissions. As it stands, Russia could earn about $1 billion selling its emissions reductions to other states under the "permit trading" system agreed by the parties to the convention.

I'm guessing Putin is holding out for even more. If the EU states want this badly enough, they can either hope that green-friendly Democrats swamp the Republicans in the 2004 elections (reclaiming the Senate by a wide margin, as well as the White House)...or they can pay the Russians to join.

I'm guessing Germany, the UK, maybe Japan and some other states are already studying their balance sheets to see what they can afford to spare.

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