WASHINGTON — Today, after a seven-year Perils-of-Pauline journey to ratification, the famous and infamous Kyoto Protocol on global climate change takes effect. How important an accord is it likely to be?
Kyoto's entry into force is undeniably a substantial achievement. Global warming, after all, poses an enormous risk of heat-induced natural disasters in the decades ahead. The effort to limit global warming is an immense undertaking that requires countries to reduce their use of fossil fuels like oil and coal, and thus affects their entire economies.
Kyoto's contribution lies first in the agreement of most industrial countries to accept a mandatory cap on their greenhouse gas emissions - on average, a 5 percent cut below 1990 levels by 2012 - and second in its inclusion of innovative, US-proposed measures, such as the trading of emission permits, to dramatically lower the cost of emission cuts.
During the critical, three-cornered US-Europe-Japan negotiation that consumed the last several days of the Kyoto talks in December 1997, there was intense debate over how large an emission cut to require, but this debate was not nearly as vital as it seemed at the time.
The real point of Kyoto was never the size of these first emission cuts, but rather the setting of an initial price on carbon (by capping emissions), thereby forcing businesses and consumers to start considering greater energy efficiency and lower-carbon energy sources.
But Kyoto has not lived up to its original promise.
First, it never should have taken this long to bring it into force. The Europeans bear some of the burden for this delay: At the Kyoto meeting itself, and during the next three years of negotiations, they resisted US proposals to cut costs, arguing that the US should be restricted in its reliance on measures like trading emissions permits, even though such measures ensure the biggest environmental bang for the buck. Eventually the EU came around, but not until after squandering three years in which more progress could have been made, while the climate Dream Team of Clinton and Gore were still in the White House.
Second, Kyoto suffers from the absence of the US - by far the world's largest emitter. President Bush had a great opportunity to confound critics by endorsing Kyoto conditionally - pressing for changes that could have addressed industry's concern about issues like the uncertainty of the price tag. Instead, he tossed the treaty overboard, creating a lasting symbol of American unilateralism in foreign policy. Ever since, he has pursued a do-nothing climate policy of modest research and little action, ignoring alarm bells from the EPA, the National Academy of Sciences, the eight-nation Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, even the Pentagon. In doing so, he surely puts his own legacy, not to mention our children, at risk.
What about the road ahead? Under the terms of the protocol, initial talks about reductions for the period after 2012 are to begin this year. But unless and until the US gets off the sidelines, it is unlikely - for reasons of economic competition - that its competitors will commit to a new round of emissions cuts. Nor is there any sign that developing countries would consider even specially tailored commitments, and they certainly won't if the US isn't participating.
The deeper question raised by the struggle to negotiate the protocol and bring it into effect is whether the pursuit of global environmental agreements like Kyoto - painstakingly negotiated among 180 nations, subject to the many compromises such talks require, vulnerable to lengthy ratification battles - is the right strategy for tackling existential problems like climate change, where the US simply cannot afford to fail.
What is at least clear is that the US needs to develop additional approaches relying on national, bilateral, and multilateral action.
As a start, here at home, Congress should enact the climate change bill proposed by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Joe Lieberman (D) of Connecticut to cap emissions by US industry.
Second, robust state plans, such as new tailpipe standards in California and a regional emissions trading system among Northeastern states, should go full speed ahead.
Third, we should pursue agreements with major countries on measures like shifting subsidies from agricultural products to biofuels, bringing clean coal technology to China, and establishing a joint emissions trading program with Europe and Japan. If you put together the top dozen greenhouse-gas emitters - who are from both developed and developing nations - they'd account for 70 percent of world emissions.
If they reached agreements like these, it could produce meaningful emission cuts while spurring more effective global cooperation.
Kyoto will always be regarded as an important start, and the day may come when full global talks can succeed.
But in the meantime, we need concerted action without delay. The clock is ticking.
• Todd Stern directed President Clinton's climate change initiative from 1997 to 1999 and was the senior White House negotiator in Kyoto. More recently he served as a senior adviser to the International Climate Change Taskforce, a private initiative led by thinktanks from the US, Britain, and Australia to consider the next steps in addressing climate change.