Emissions Scorecard

Having recently observed that energy policy is in an impasse, and having focused mainly on issues of energy independence and dependencies, let's take a closer look at energy's climate corollary.

The first thing to take stock of is the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 addendum to the 1992 United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), with which the world dedicated itself to the task of preventing "dangerous" global warming (without being too specific about what that meant). Generally, Kyoto obligated the industrial and then-industrializing societies--basically the advanced OECD economies and the transitional economies of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe--to cut their emissions by varying amounts by 2012 (around 7-8 percent in the case of Europe and the United States).

The Kyoto Protocol took force on February 16, 2005 and now has 192 countries as parties, all but one of which has ratified the agreement. That one holdout is the United States. So from a strictly legal perspective, Kyoto joins other international agreements--such as those banning land mines, protecting children and migrant workers, and establishing the international criminal court, among others--that the USA has chosen not to affirm. (But that's another story.)

Absence of the United States from the UNFCCC implementing protocol is important but not all-important, as noted here and in Spectrum magazine many times. There is no one-to-one relationship between protocol status and actual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. But that's not to say there's no relationship whatsoever. Nations that have been the most seriously concerned about climate change and that have expressed the strongest support for the Kyoto regime also have been most successful in meeting or even exceeding the Kyoto terms.

First and foremost come the United Kingdom and Germany, which lead the major advanced industrial countries in cutting emissions. Counting changes in land use patterns (which have impacts on both the uptake and release of carbon dioxide and methane), Britain's GHG emissions were 27.7 percent lower in 2009 than in 1990, and Germany's were 23.1 percent lower. Each country has cut its emissions roughly three times more than Kyoto required.

U.S. GHG emissions in 2009, on the other hand, were 10.6 percent higher than in 1990. Japan's were 5 percent lower but Canada--which often sounds as high-minded as Sweden in global discourse--saw its GHG emissions reach a level almost 30 percent higher than in 1990!

Collectively, the so-called Annex 1 countries (OECD and former East Bloc) cut their emissions about 10 percent from 1990 to 2008, while U.S. emissions went up about 15 percent in that period. But some of the fine detail is of further interest. In the period from 2000 to 2005--when the Bush administration was making a point of not taking the climate problem seriously--the United States did a better job of cutting emissions than Germany and Britain did. What is more, in the period from 2000 to 2009, in which U.S. policy has consistently fallen short of what Kyoto parties have sought, the United States cut its emissions by about 14 percent, whereas Europe cut its just 11 percent . (That's true whether we're talking about the 15 European Union countries that initially signed the protocol or the 27 EU countries of today.)

With the United Kingdom experiencing severe social and economic problems, Germany dead-set on phasing out nuclear energy, and Japan likely to follow suit, all three nations will be only too happy to see global legal requirements relaxed. Germany's and Japan's emissions are sure to rise in the near term, as fossil energy replaces atomic; and if Britain has to back off from expensive energy commitments, its emissions may rise as well. Meanwhile, perhaps, the United States will pick up some of the slack, and some of the real deadbeats like Canada will get on board.

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