The Climate in Montreal

Friday, December 2, 2005

TO HEAR THEM talk, you would think that the Bush administration officials attending the international climate change conference in Montreal this week were deeply committed to cutting emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. One Associated Press story said that the lead Montreal negotiator claimed the president had committed to cutting greenhouse gases some 18 percent by 2012. Another State Department official in Montreal said that the United States had already cut greenhouse gas emissions by 0.8 percent between 2000 and 2003.

Unfortunately, neither of these figures stands up to examination. In fact, the president's easily misunderstood 18 percent pledge referred not to reduction of actual emissions but to the reduction of "emissions intensity," a number that reflects a country's greenhouse gas emissions relative to its gross domestic product. "Emissions intensity," so defined, has in fact been declining in this country for 20 years. If it were to decline by 18 percent between now and 2012, that would simply reflect business as usual. It would not necessarily require any environmental policy change, nor would it ensure any reduction in the amount of greenhouse gases that economic activity produces.

The second figure is no less dubious. The government's own statistics, as they appear on the Energy Information Administration and Environmental Protection Agency Web sites, do show a drop in the nation's overall greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2001 -- a year of economic recession. (In fact, the EPA attributes the change not to environmental policy but to a slowdown in economic growth.) More to the point, both sets of statistics also show that emission rates climbed again in 2002, as the economy recovered, and then again in 2003, by which point they were climbing at the same average rate they had climbed throughout the 1990s. According to the EIA, in 2003 they had already surpassed 2000 levels, and there is no reason to think that the numbers won't show the same trend for 2004.

So the Bush talk on numbers is just that and, not surprisingly, it turns out that so is the Bush talk on international cooperation. One of the goals of the Montreal summit is to start moving beyond the unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol and to begin negotiating another, more flexible, climate change and emissions reduction treaty. U.S. representatives in Montreal have stated quite clearly that they want no part of any such formal negotiations and may try to prevent them from happening at all. Instead, the administration is promoting voluntary emissions reduction and technology investments, nice ideas that only a handful of businesses have bothered to adopt.

The administration's decision to remain on the sidelines runs counter to U.S. tactical interests as well as to the Earth's future. It will hamper the efforts of friendly countries, notably Britain, to write a new climate change agreement that includes the developing world and eschews inflexible emissions targets in favor of a basket of economic and environmental goals. It also goes against the grain of the bipartisan consensus on climate change emerging in the Senate: Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have called on the administration to participate in new climate negotiations. Sadly, instead of promoting a climate change treaty the United States can live with, the administration is preparing, once again, to sit out the game altogether.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company