Cutting Greenhouse Gases, or Not

October 26, 2003


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 widespread poverty.

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 qualify.

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."