“We are below the Kyoto levels now. We are below the Waxman-Markey levels. …We are doing things but nobody is doing enough.”

— Secretary of State John F. Kerry, remarks at Youth Connect with BBC’s Hardtalk, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 26, 2013

“The United States of America today is below Kyoto levels in emissions. People don’t know that. The United States today is actually below the Waxman-Markey legislation mandates that didn’t pass. So we’re doing things — automobile efficiency, standards, efficiencies, building codes, fleet purchase, all kinds of things, but not enough. No one is doing enough.”

— Kerry, remarks with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, Kiruna, Sweden, May 15


We became interested in these comments after a reader directed our attention to an illuminating fact check, by Brad Klapper of the Associated Press, concerning a range of “iffy claims” made by Kerry in Africa. Oddly, at least two of the comments that the AP checked are not in the official State Department transcript. But we confirmed the accuracy of Kerry’s remarks by listening to a recording of the session.

In any case, Kerry has made this same point about the United States meeting Kyoto emissions targets at least twice this month while making impromptu remarks. (By contrast, this observation did not appear in his official speech to the Arctic Council Ministerial Session.)

 Could this claim possibly be correct?


The Facts

The Kyoto agreement, officially  known as the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was an international treaty negotiated in 1997 that sought to force industrialized countries to meet targets in reducing greenhouse gases. The United States, under the Clinton administration, signed the agreement but it was never ratified by the Senate.

This is how the U.N. news release framed the key aspect of the agreement:

After 10 days of tough negotiations, ministers and other high-level officials from 160 countries reached agreement this morning on a legally binding Protocol under which industrialized countries will reduce their collective emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2%.

The agreement aims to lower overall emissions from a group of six greenhouse gases by 2008-12, calculated as an average over these five years. Cuts in the three most important gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N20) — will be measured against a base year of 1990. Cuts in three long-lived industrial gases — hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) — can be measured against either a 1990 or 1995 baseline.


Moreover, in the treaty, the United States itself made a commitment to essentially achieve a 7 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012.  At a summit in Copenhagen in 2009, President Obama made a further pledge to reduce emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

So what do the data show?

The Environmental  Protection Agency’s 2013 report on greenhouse emissions takes the data through 2011. Figure 2-1 shows that that United States is well above the 1990s level for the six combined gases. Net emissions were 5,389 million metric tons in 1990, compared to 5,797 million metric tons in 2011. In other words, that’s 7.5 percent higher — not lower.

The numbers are a bit better when you look at individual gases. Carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and hydrofluorocarbons have missed their targets, while methane, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride have met the 7 percent reduction. (However, questions have been raised about the accuracy of the methane data, which is important because methane is more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.)

Preliminary 2012 data on carbon dioxide, published by the Energy Information Administration (Table 12.1), show a decline to 5,290 million metric tons, but that is still way above the United States’ pledged Kyoto target commitment of 4,686 million metric tons.  

Kerry lapsed into Senate speak when he referred to “Waxman-Markey,” a 2009 House bill to cap greenhouse emissions that died in the Senate, named after Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). He is correct that this year’s target would have been met, but that’s setting a rather low bar — 97 percent of 2005 levels by 2012.  

“The recent emission numbers are in fact below what would have been required for 2012 if the bill had passed, but that is in part because the bill’s requirements would only have just started to be phased in,” said Kevin Kennedy, director of the U.S. Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute. “Emissions in 2009 would have actually met the 2012 goal, which was three percent below 2005 levels.”

A Kerry spokesman said that when the secretary was speaking of “levels,” he was referring to the level of emissions when the Kyoto treaty was negotiated in 1997 — not the actual targets contained in the treaty.

“Secretary Kerry’s absolutely correct that, even absent formal action, the U.S. is already making strides on reducing emissions, and as he said, as of the last report in 2011, our emissions levels are below the levels when the U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997,” Alec Gerlach said. “Kerry’s been a climate leader, elevates climate on a global scale in nearly every meeting with foreign leaders, and more progress is on the way.”


The Pinocchio Test

While Kerry noted in his comments that more needs to be done on climate change, his inaccurate recounting of U.S. performance on the Kyoto emissions targets leaves the wrong impression. Low natural gas prices and the economic downtown — not specific policies — have been the prime factors in the emissions reductions, especially for carbon dioxide.

Speaking off the cuff — or with false precision — is a dangerous business for a secretary of state. Twice this month, in two continents, Kerry has left a misleading impression about U.S. progress in meeting its international commitments on climate change. We’d almost make this Four Pinocchios, but he did get the part about Waxman-Markey right, even though it’s not much to brag about.

Three Pinocchios


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