Cutting Greenhouse Gases, or Not
October 26, 2003
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
In the international debate over how to deal with global
warming, the United States and China occupy center stage.
The United States has long been the dominant producer of
carbon dioxide emissions and the other heat-trapping
greenhouse gases associated with rising temperatures.
China still lags far behind in total emissions, but its
vast population and rapid rate of economic growth put it
high on experts' lists of future sources of the warming
gases. India is not too far behind.
China is rapidly increasing its consumption of coal and oil
to fuel an ever more electrified and mobile society. India
is experiencing a similar energy surge for similar reasons,
and like China, it hopes rapid growth will help to reduce
But if the United States, China and India are critical to
meeting the threat of greenhouse gases, the question is:
who goes first?
The emissions restrictions called for in the pending
climate treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol apply only to
industrialized countries that ratify it.
There are provisions that could allow a rich country to
gain credits for investing in emissions-reducing projects
in poorer ones, but the rules remain mired in disputes over
how to measure gains and what kinds of projects should
In the meantime, President Bush has rejected the Kyoto
pact, objecting that it is costly and ignores China, India
and other big developing nations.
Nonetheless, many global warming experts say that history
and logic require the United States to take the lead.
In almost all international environmental agreements in
recent decades, the so-called developing world has
essentially been allowed to sit out the first round or two.
Whether the goal has been curbing global warming, restoring
the ozone layer or phasing out toxic organic chemicals,
there has long been a broad consensus that the first steps
should be taken by the industrial powers.
The 1992 climate treaty, which underpins the pending Kyoto
Protocol, explicitly speaks of "differentiated
responsibilities" for advanced and advancing nations. After
all, the logic goes, rich countries achieved their
prosperity in part because they were unhampered by
restrictions on the use of natural resources.
Still, the Bush administration remains opposed to any
emissions restrictions, though it has been sending mixed
signals of late.
Last November, for example, during international treaty
talks in India on the climate change issue, Paula J.
Dobriansky, the under secretary of state for global
affairs, said, "We do not see targets and timetables as
realistic for developing countries."
But critics of Mr. Bush say that is not a sign of progress.
"Their messages at home and abroad are both calculated to
discourage action," said Elliot Diringer, the director of
international strategies for the Pew Center on Global
Climate Change, a private group advocating emissions cuts.
"At home you say Kyoto is unfair because it doesn't
include developing countries and in negotiations you say
it's unfair to ask developing countries to take targets,"
he said. "The message is inconsistent but the strategy is
consistent - for more delay."