A UNITED Nations group has been meeting in New York to hammer out an agreement on an international framework convention on climate change to begin the process of limiting accumulations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Much of the public focus has been on an argument between the United States and other industrialized countries about targets and timetables for limiting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
Japan and Western Europe want the US to join them in a commitment to stabilizing emissions by 2000. The Bush administration believes that such a commitment to stabilization is not compelled by the scientific evidence, could be very costly to our economy, and would require new taxes and governmental regulation that the American public would find unacceptable.
Stabilizing emissions of CO2, the principal greenhouse gas, in the industrialized world alone would have limited impact on slowing the increase in CO2 emissions worldwide. According to the UN, total global emissions could double over the next 35 years as developing nations grow economically and world population expands. But developing nations are unwilling to take actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless the rich countries take the first steps. Moreover, the South believes that its actions shoul d be supported by significant additional funds from the North.
Why do other developed nations believe that they can stabilize CO2 emissions, while we in the US can't? After all, we have similar technologies, use the same energy sources, and our citizens follow similar lifestyles.
The Japanese intend to stabilize on a per capita basis, but rely mainly on nuclear power for increased energy needs. This option is not politically or economically acceptable in the US.
The policy of the Europeans is more instructive. A recent study funded by the Europeans and the US Environmental Protection Agency suggests that both regions will reduce total greenhouse gas emissions compared to current levels, but that the Europeans will be more successful due in large part to policies previously adopted that have little to do with responses to global climate change. The Europeans expect to stabilize CO2 emissions, while those in the US are expected to increase by 13 to 15 percent.
Lower projected economic and population growth - not new policies - is a major cause of the lower rise in CO2 emissions in Europe. And half of the European savings from new policies are projected to come from a carbon tax, although the study questioned the likelihood of its being approved in its present form. If these factors are accounted for, the differences narrow greatly.
RECENTLY, the US government has made a more optimistic assessment of its actions, including voluntary energy-efficiency programs. With more realistic economic-growth projections, it suggests the US could stabilize CO2 emissions, at least on a per capita basis, over the next 10 years. Additional reductions in CO2 emissions could come from an energy bill likely to pass this year.
Thus, it appears that the real differences between the US and other industrialized nations are much less than generally understood. Nevertheless, the administration may continue to reject stabilization goals that may be unachievable without taxes and "command and control" regulations which it opposes on political and economic grounds.
The US could push for two strategic initiatives in the framework-convention negotiations that would bridge the gap with our allies and focus international attention on how best to assist nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without affecting their economic development.
First, the US should take the lead in getting governments to commit to track the results of their specific actions. There should be a continuous, open assessment process that takes into consideration the impacts of economic growth, population increases, and other factors that directly affect greenhouse gas emissions. This would also allow us to learn cost-effective approaches from each other.
Second, we know too little about what technologies and approaches will be most effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. If the world is to be successful in addressing the threat of climate change, we must look at new, innovative approaches.
Currently, we have very limited practical experience of which technologies are successful, which aren't (and why), what the costs are, and what are the social and political hurdles to overcome. Projects should be monitored according to a common evaluation system and the results made available worldwide.
The developing world will require additional resources, but we must know how effective they will be before a large commitment is made. The US should lead in obtaining the commitment of all donor nations and lending institutions to undertake a variety of projects and initiatives throughout the developing world and to share the results with all nations.
A strategy to test and evaluate the effectiveness of approaches, both within rich countries and in the developing world, has the advantage of finding out how best to address the potential impacts of climate change while the world community continues its scientific assessment of the threat. One doesn't have to accept dire predictions of global warming to commit a relatively small amount of additional resources to contingency planning and preparation.
Given our technological expertise and long experience in working with nations in the developing world, the US is well positioned to take the lead. It's time for us and the other developed nations to quit focusing on short-term tactical skirmishes and forge a strategic approach with the rest of the world.