Greenhouse Games


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Ten years ago, when the United States signed but then refused to ratify The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—better known as the Kyoto Protocol, for the city in which it was negotiated—the U.S. was vilified as a bully, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases that refused to even consider reducing its output.

Ratifying the treaty would have required the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 8% below 1990 levels, a reduction that would have cost the U.S. economy hundred of billions of dollars and millions of jobs, according to a subsequent assessment by the Bush Administration. Early on, the administration put to rest any notion that the U.S. might sign aboard to the Kyoto Protocol as it currently exists.

Besides a potentially huge hit on the domestic economy, one of the main reasons given for the U.S.’s refusal to ratify the accord was the fact that it gave a pass to developing countries such as China and India. Even before negotiations on Kyoto were complete, in fact, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution saying the United States should not sign any protocol that failed to include binding targets and timetables for both developing and industrialized nations.

The wisdom of this approach became apparent a little earlier this year, when it was reported that China overtook the United States as the world’s biggest producer of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas. China’s emissions had not been expected to overtake those from the U.S. for several years.

The report, from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, says a soaring demand for coal to generate electricity and a surge in cement production have helped to push China’s recorded emissions for 2006 to 6,200 metric tons of CO2 last year, compared with 5,800 metric tons from the U.S.

The agency says China’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation and cement production, which requires large amounts of energy, pushed it ahead of the U.S. in CO2 emissions far sooner than was expected. Cement production in particular has grown tremendously in China, which now accounts for 44% of world output, according to the report.

The new figures include only carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production. They do not include sources of other greenhouse gases, such as methane from agriculture and nitrous oxide from industrial processes.

Confirmation of China’s ascendance as the world’s largest emitter of CO2 comes during negotiations to produce a new climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto protocol when it expires in 2012. Coincidentally, at about the same time as the announcement, China unveiled its first national plan to address climate change after two years of preparation by multiple government ministries. Rather than setting a direct target for the reduction or avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions, the country now aims to reduce energy consumption per unit of gross domestic product by 20% by 2010 and to increase the share of renewable energy to 10%. The plan also calls for covering roughly 20% of the nation’s land with forest.

This column has addressed China’s problems with the environment before (“China Syndrome,” May 2006). At that time, a series of man-made environmental catastrophes had the government beginning to talk about stricter enforcement of environmental laws in an effort to crack down on chemical plants and other polluters who were damaging the water supplies of millions of Chinese.

Now the same thing is happening with regard to greenhouse gases. But, the Chinese government said, technology and costs are major barriers to achieving energy efficiency, and that it will be hard to alter the nation’s dependency on coal in the short term. What China needs, according to a government spokesman, is international cooperation to help it move toward a low-carbon economy.

It remains to be seen whether China can lower or at least hold steady on its greenhouse gas emissions. But unless the new climate change protocol currently being hammered out includes China, India and other developing nations, the U.S. would be ill-served in signing aboard.