Wednesday 26th October 2016                 Change text size:

Carbon politics: ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ in the US and China

Photo: Ian Barbour via Flickr

Gerald Kutney picks out some of the highlights from his upcoming book, Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, to be published by Routledge in January 2014. In this third of the series of five instalments, he provides an overview of the third chapter.

The US has generally been a reluctant member of the international community in the climate change discussions, as carbon targets were viewed as being detrimental to its economy. And even when it did participate, the Americans were a disruptive force in the discussions.

The traditional blocking mechanism was put forth by the government:  more research on the science and economics of climate change was needed before any legally-binding decisions could be considered.  The ‘paralysis-by-analysis’ strategy on climate change by US administrations has worked for three decades (and we are now into a fourth).

The interaction between climate change science and US politics goes back to the Eisenhower era. The Reagan administration had done its best to slow down any climate change treaty progress, which was more forcibly opposed by George Bush Sr.

The negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol took place during the administration of Bill Clinton, with Al Gore as his vice-president. The US position was already untenable as the deadline for Kyoto approached. And Congress was at war with the president over the negotiations.

So how did a group of the leading negotiators in the world end up in such a mess? Despite placating Congress with rhetoric about being committed to achieving emissions targets for developing nations, the White House pursued a separate agenda.

We can trace the failure of climate change policy back to the White House objective of joint implementation and the related flexible mechanisms, whereby an emissions-reduction project in a foreign country could be claimed by a nation within Annex I of the Protocol; in other words, a nation with emissions reduction targets could choose the most cost-effective location for a project, even if in another country.

It sounded like a good policy that industry would generally like and would improve the economics of climate change initiatives.  However, the Clinton administration seemed determined to get this policy into the Kyoto Protocol at any price.

On November 12 1998, Al Gore signed the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the government but warned that the US would not ratify it without the meaningful participation of key developing countries. This did not happen, and the US was out.

On March 28 2001, the new president officially announced that the US would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol as should have been expected. But the reaction was a surprising world outcry, as if the new George W Bush administration was making a radical departure in US policy.

Yet, Gore had said as much when he signed the protocol, and Bush’s declaration was simply policy euthanasia, finally putting an end to the failed negotiations.

The failure of the US to join an international agreement on climate change can be assigned to the understanding of the short phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities.” For over 20 years, seasoned bureaucrats – especially those of the US and China – have haggled over the meaning of these four simple words.

China has vehemently opposed binding carbon targets for itself and other developing nations, but the refusal to adopt carbon targets, however plausible and defendable such a position, creates a de facto problem. If the entire world achieved on a per capita basis the ‘American dream’, then global emissions would rise from 27 billion tonnes to 117 billion tonnes per annum.

Without some restrictions on the growth of emissions in developing countries, it will be impossible to bring global emissions under control. One can make some valid arguments to justify why China should not have to participate, yet these arguments do not help the planet as China’s insatiable appetite for energy has transformed a domestic problem into an international crisis.

To illustrate this point, if the US and the EU carbon emissions had been zero in 2010, the world emissions still would have been about the same as 1990, the Kyoto base year. Even if they tried their best, the US and the EU cannot stop climate change without China.

Canada can be viewed as a microcosm for the typical factors influencing the range of political positions on climate change. While a leader in the early days of the climate change negotiations, it is best remembered today as being the only country that officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol.  Nevertheless, regrettable as it was, Canada’s withdrawal was appropriate under the circumstances.

In the next segment of this series on chapter 4 of Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, an analysis is presented on the diplomatic discussions that led to the Kyoto Protocol, from the viewpoint of the other players, Germany and the European Union.

Gerald Kutney is managing director of Sixth Element Sustainable Management. His book, Carbon Politics and the Failure of the Kyoto Protocol, is being published by Routledge in January 2014. Pre-order your copy here.

Further reading:

Carbon politics: foul ball in the 2010 season

Carbon politics: the gamesmanship of the Kyoto negotiations

COP19: international climate talks begin in Warsaw, Poland

Strong national action on climate change spurs on international agreements, says study

Climate change is ‘not a high priority for most politicians’

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