Climate Change: Who Really Wants a Climate Agreement Anyway?

Public differences on climate policy between the US and Europe have provided yet another opportunity for each to indulge its favorite stereotype of the other. Greater recognition of the political realities on both sides of the Atlantic, and greater honesty about the strengths and weaknesses of the Kyoto Protocol, are required if there is to be a climate agreement.

The World Today Updated 8 September 2020 Published 1 July 2001 4 minute READ

The transatlantic gulf on climate policy has widened perceptibly in the wake of President George Bush’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. Recent European reaction to the proposed US National Energy Policy threatens to increase it even further. If the US and the European Union really want a climate agreement each must recognise the other’s domestic political realities, and resist ready stereotypes. Both must be honest about the good and bad aspects of the Protocol, discussions on which resume this month. Otherwise the chance for progress on this difficult issue will be missed in a fog of misperception and recrimination.

Realities in Europe

Many American observers fail to understand European public concern about climate change. The role of green parties in coalition governments, especially their leadership of environmental ministries, gives climate policy a political salience that is difficult for Americans to appreciate. As a result, US observers tend to underestimate the commitment of European governments to action on greenhouse gas emissions, and the hard work being expended to maintain a frail consensus on how to go about it.

Further, to an extent that is difficult for the dominant power to appreciate, international agreement seems to be an important ingredient in the internal European Union (EU) process. Thus non-participation by the US, not to mention denigration of the hard-won if incomplete Kyoto text, is a matter of real domestic political concern in Europe.

In part because of this weak understanding of European parliamentary systems and the complexities of EU governance, a popular stereotype in the US is that Europeans are great with words, but poor at actually doing anything. In this view, much European talk about meeting climate targets is just that: talk. Among the caricatures of Europe held by many Americans, few are more pernicious to progress on a climate agreement.

Life in America

Current US energy problems result from the failure of the supply infrastructure to keep up with demand driven by sustained economic growth. Uncertain investment incentives because of electricity and natural gas deregulation have delayed spending, and market responses have been slowed by regulatory underbrush. The result is severe market disequilibrium. This is visible in the California blackouts and in dramatic nationwide increases in the price of natural gas, and in electricity and petrol prices in large parts of the country.

The experience of California, one of the most environmentally conscientious states, makes the implications clear. Citizens expect adequate energy and politicians ignore this at their peril. Europeans may believe that Americans should get by with less energy, but that view is not widely shared in the US. Until it is, politicians on the US side can as little ignore these attitudes as those in the EU can ignore Green Party demands.

European leaders charge that the proposed US Energy Policy spurred by these problems is ‘disastrous’ for the climate issue. In fact, US energy and environmental policy are pursued simultaneously and independently of each other to an extent that may be hard to appreciate in Europe. Thus, it is not surprising that the Bush Energy Policy, Reliable, Affordable, and Environmentally Sound Energy for America’s Future, sets out ‘to significantly reduce and cap emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury from electric power generators… (to) provide significant public health benefits even as we increase electricity supplies.’

Significantly reducing emissions of these three pollutants will raise electricity prices at the same time that building more power plants will keep them down. The energy and environmental objectives could be seen as conflicting, but the pursuit of one does not preclude the other.

In this context, separating the two White House task forces, one on energy and one on climate, means little. Action on each is likely to be judged on the respective merits. The energy policy has been proposed, but the other shoe, a policy on greenhouse gas emissions, has yet to drop.

Perhaps because they are not familiar with these complexities, many Europeans share a stereotype of the US. Energy-guzzling Americans, sometimes labelled the world’s greatest polluters, lie at the heart of the climate problem, and the Bush energy plan is just another example of general disregard for the environment. Among the caricatures of America held by Europeans, few are more detrimental to the search for common ground.

Is the Kyoto Protocol that bad?

A common American criticism of the Kyoto Protocol is that it aims to disadvantage the US by requiring significantly more stringent reductions of the US than of others – mainly in Europe – and by exempting large parts of the world altogether. Nevertheless, the overall structure includes many reasonable features that respond to US interests, such as emissions trading and the inclusion of ‘sinks’ – forests and soils which may absorb carbon – and the non-CO2 greenhouse gases. Its shortcomings lie not so much in its basic elements, or even necessarily in the quantitative approach, but in unrealistic targets and timetables.

The Bush rejection may have been unnecessarily abrupt, but sooner or later the pretense that the current targets could be made workable for the US had to end. A Gore presidency would have produced different choreography but not brighter prospects for ratification. It is worth noting that the Bush administration has said little about the overall architecture of the Kyoto Protocol, focusing narrowly on the formulaic objections of a 1997 Byrd-Hagel Senate resolution.

Is the Kyoto Protocol that good?

In Europe an opposite view is advanced that the Protocol is a complete document, providing a practical plan of action upon which most nations are agreed. In reality, it is far from complete. Areas of continuing disagreement, such as emissions trading and the sinks questions, torpedoed the November 2000 meeting of Parties in The Hague. Moreover, the emissions targets are problematic for others besides the US.

It is not clear that EU members are prepared to meet their targets, absent a resort to emission reduction credits created by the decline of the Russian economy since the 1990 base year – so-called hot air – which will have a near-zero price without US participation. It is ironic that the same EU seemed intent on limiting access to these credits so long as the pretense of US participation could be sustained.

Tragically, much of the rancorous conflict over carbon sinks and hot air is an artifact of the unrealistic reduction targets. If less ambitious targets had been chosen, the intense demand for these cost-reducing tricks, and the controversy they have caused, might never have arisen.

What counts for climate are cumulative emissions over a century, not near-term reductions. Therefore instead of risking the failure of stringent initial targets it is wiser to begin with modest, sure measures and to build as experience and commitment are gained.

Meanwhile, how to gen an agreement?

Clearly much depends on America, but just as clearly the US response is not all that matters. The path to international agreement depends equally on what European leaders do next, in particular whether they rise above unhelpful rhetoric and seek an international regime that is open to others, including the US and, as importantly, developing countries.

Hard as it may be for European leaders to accept, the US cannot take on binding international commitments until there is broad public agreement, reflected in Congress. As time goes by, fewer arguments are heard that climate change is not a threat, including notably from the Bush administration, but there is yet no compelling view of an appropriate response.

One might look for leadership from the Executive Branch to mobilise such a consensus, but given the change of administration and the urgent focus on domestic energy markets, more than the usual patience will be required. Finally, moral exhortation from abroad invariably rankles, regardless from which side of the Atlantic it originates.

So, where does this leave European leaders? In our view, working toward a global regime for climate change is not so different from their ongoing experience in building the European Union. The common good can be seen, and most agree in broad outline, but each nation jealously guards its own prerogative and yields to the common goal only fitfully and with maddening hesitation.

Thus, while European leaders must devise a system for greenhouse emissions that addresses domestic political realities in Europe, it is important that they also seek a regime that can eventually be integrated with approaches taken by other sovereign nations. The most important feature of that system will be its openness, ultimately to encompass the world as others come to share a common vision and to assume coordinated actions.

The Kyoto Protocol was a bold attempt to negotiate a compact to which all would agree and then take home to implement more or less simultaneously. Such a top-down, all-at-once approach has its advantages; but most international systems, such as in trade and finance, grow from the bottom up, as nations establish the preconditions at home and then work out the ways to interact with others.

The EU has demonstrated in the Burden Sharing Agreement how it can accommodate varying national circumstances within Europe. In time, other nations will take like action and also seek international cooperation. The question then will be whether the approach adopted in Europe can be merged into a global regime by accommodating extra-European as well as intra-European differences. Such an open architecture is particularly needed in a climate agreement when the most important ‘other’ is the United States, whose capacity for change and proselytising zeal should never be underestimated.

Otherwise, the world risks contending climate regimes or, even worse, ineffectual displays of self-assigned virtue as the two sides of the Atlantic succumb to misunderstanding and clichéd stereotype. Future generations may then wonder if anyone really wanted a climate agreement.