Wake Up Call
AL GORE HAD JUST SAT DOWN to cold cereal and mixed fruit with the chief American negotiator at the climate-change conference in Kyoto, Japan, last week. The international meeting was stalemated. Poor countries were convinced that the United States was leading a cabal to deny them the right to develop economically. Environmentalists were fuming that a lawyer from one of Washington's most-wired firms was trying, on behalf of American industry, to torpedo a deal by advising countries like India and China not to give an inch to any U.S. demands. It looked like Gore's pet cause, reining in the greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and thus threaten to change the planet's climate, was in deep trouble. So after being on the phone with White House aides throughout the 18-hour flight on Air Force Two, the vice president "made it clear that he wanted us to go the extra mile," Stuart Eizenstat, under secretary of state and head of the U.S. delegation, told NEWSWEEK. Less than an hour before he spoke, Gore typed a new passage into his laptop. Then, before 2,200 government officials and 8,000 observers, lobbyists and reporters, he strode to the podium. "I am instructing our delegation right now," Gore said, "to show increased negotiating flexibility."
While to ordinary ears that may not sound like a rousing call to arms, in diplo-speak it meant Gore, and Clinton, were determined to get a deal in Kyoto. Gore's transpacific flight had spewed out tons of the chief man-made greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (a car emits about 20 pounds for every gallon of gas it burns), but what's a little pollution when you can help save the planet? Two days after Gore's speech, on the day after the conference was scheduled to end-with the official interpreters gone, the heat turned off in the press gallery and negotiators groggy from staying up 48 hours straight-delegates from the 159 nations agreed to a pact that takes the first, historic steps toward legally binding reductions in the industrial gases that threaten to dramatically, and possibly disastrously, change the planet's climate. But as Clinton conceded, "There are still hard challenges ahead."
That was an understatement. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union would reduce its emissions of six greenhouse gases 8 percent below what they were in 1990. Japan would reduce to 6 percent below 1990 levels (a 2 a.m. phone call from Gore to Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto got Japan to budge from its 5 percent offer). The United States, the biggest greenhouse polluter, pledged a 7 percent reduction below 1990. According to the Department of Energy, that would mean emitting 550 million metric tons less carbon by 2012 than we otherwise would-a 30 percent cut. It would be achieved largely by burning less coal, oil and natural gas. These fossil fuels produce carbon dioxide-but they also power virtually all economic activity. Opponents therefore warned, as they did for weeks in a $13 million pre-Kyoto advertising campaign, that reducing greenhouse gases by burning less fossil fuel would send the economy into the toilet, push jobs overseas, force drivers out of their Range Rovers and basically condemn Americans to drinking warm beer in a cold house. As Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska declared, "We will kill this bill."
But it isn't a bill. Congress does not have the power to bring it to the floor for a quick death. Instead, a president sends a treaty to the Senate for ratification. Late last week Clinton announced that he would not submit the treaty until 1999 at the earliest, and not until after he had wrung from developing countries a pledge to limit their own greenhouse gases. Even Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who supports greenhouse cuts, called the pact "not yet ratifiable by the U.S. Senate because of the lack of meaningful participation by developing countries." The fear is that if America's competitors don't have to meet the Kyoto goals, industries will move plants-and jobs-overseas. "This agreement," said William O'Keefe of the American Petroleum Institute, "represents unilateral economic disarmament."
Get set for a bruising debate that could make the "Harry and Louise" ads attacking Clinton's health-care plan look mild. Already the coal, oil, auto and other big industries have paid for studies concluding that greenhouse cuts would raise gasoline prices 44 cents a gallon, increase electric bills 48 percent and push up the cost of home heating oil 55 percent. Green groups are reminding voters that these were the same businesses that warned that controlling the gases that cause acid rain would cost $350 to $1,000 a ton, whereas in fact it costs $62 to $170. "Every time we've tried to improve the American environment in the last 25 or 30 years," Clinton said in an opening salvo, "somebody has predicted that it would wreck the economy."
The administration doesn't think greenhouse reductions will do any such thing, and there are steps it can take to bring about the cuts with no help from Congress. It can funnel research-and-development grants to support carbon-free energies, like wind and solar. (Such grants have brought down the cost of wind power from 40 cents per kilowatt hour in 1980 to 5 cents today, competitive with fossil fuel.) And under existing law, the administration can tighten energy-efficiency standards for home appliances. Refrigerators that draw less electricity, for instance, would cause the emission (from power plants) of 12 million fewer tons of carbon in 2010. The efficient fridge would cost about $80 more, which the consumer would get back in electricity savings over two or so years. Improving the efficiency of other appliances, as well as buildings, would save up to 60 million tons of carbon, calculates physicist Joseph Romm of the Department of Energy. The technologies to achieve these small steps, and others, all exist today (chart). The White House hopes to speed their adoption by requiring all federal agencies to reduce energy consumption and buy only efficient machinery.
There is no question, though, that achieving the Kyoto greenhouse cuts would be easier if Congress came on board. The administration is preparing a $5 billion package of tax cuts, credits and research grants to bring down greenhouse emissions, but the bill would require congressional approval. Listening to the fury on Capitol Hill-Speaker Newt Gingrich called the Kyoto pact "an outrage," and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma described it as "a political, economic and national- security fiasco"-that seemed like a long shot. But things will get interesting when the GOP's opposition runs headlong into causes that it holds dear. Like tax reductions. A car that gets 40 mpg rather than the current industry average of 27 would cost an extra $1,000 to $2,000; with a tax credit for fuel-efficient cars, a buyer could get all or some of the extra back on April 15. In fact, the Ford Motor Co. says it can build a van that gets 32 miles per gallon-more than twice its Econoline's mileage-at no additional cost; Toyota is about to roll out a 66-mpg Corolla-size car.
Another opening for greenhouse savings could come as early as next year, with a bill to deregulate electric utilities. The industry is drooling over the prospect of competing for customers anywhere in the country (much as long-distance phone companies do). In return, the administration is planning ways to get utilities to agree to greenhouse cuts. One easy fix would be to run power plants more efficiently: the industry average is 34 percent, but the best plants are 55 percent efficient. Minimizing shutdowns, says Tom Natan of the National Environmental Trust, could increase efficiency at no cost to consumers and with no new technology. Another possibility: require utilities to tell customers how they generate power. That way, people who wanted to support, say, wind energy and didn't mind paying 5 to 10 percent more to feel virtuous could do so. Even natural-gas-fired utilities produce less carbon than those fueled by coal or oil. Might there be any takers? "The people are ahead of the politicians on this one," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. In a NEWSWEEK Poll, 82 percent of those responding said they would pay more for an efficient appliance; 74 percent would pay more for a high-mpg car.
America's Kyoto burden may in fact be less onerous than it seems. For one thing, the United States could reduce the 7 percent it has to cut greenhouse emissions by 2 of those percentage points through planting trees, which suck up carbon. Also, the cuts don't all have to come from carbon dioxide. The United States insisted that five other greenhouse gases, which are arguably easier to cut, count toward the goal. Another way for the United States to reduce its emissions would be to buy its way out of part of its Kyoto pledge. Russia, for instance, is emitting way less greenhouse gases than it was in 1990. The United States could buy Russia's unused greenhouse allowance, slicing as much as 160 million tons off its own obligation of 550 million. China and India tried to kill such "emissions trading," so the Kyoto delegates left the details for the next climate-change meeting, in November 1998 in Buenos Aires. The United States could also get credits toward its emissions goal by investing in greenhouse-friendly projects overseas-say, by selling energy-efficient factories to China. "This will enhance our growth [and] create new opportunities for technology," said Eizenstat, especially in exports and high-tech industries.
The Kyoto Protocol will be available for signing for one year, beginning next March. Once a country signs, it has a year to ratify. The administration hopes to pick up Senate support in two ways. First, it is counting on voters to embrace greenhouse cuts. (In the NEWSWEEK Poll, 63 percent said the cuts could be made without hurting the economy.) Second, it is banking on its arm-twisting to get wealthier developing countries, like Brazil, China and India, to commit to limiting their own greenhouse gases. The developing world accounts for less than 25 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted since the Industrial Revolution, but its emissions will surpass those of Europe, Japan and the United States by 2030. Even if the United States signs and ratifies the Kyoto Protocol, however, greenhouse emissions would continue to grow, though at a slower rate. Some climate change is therefore just about inevitable. What the Kyoto pact does is take a small, though historic, first step toward turning down the heat.
The new international accord would require drastic cuts in greenhouse gases-especially carbon dioxide-in just 15 years. How the United States might be able to start chipping away:
The rate of CO(sub2) emission is expected to soar unless the treaty is ratified and observed. Who pollutes how much:
Sources of CO(sub2) emissions, 1996
If a study funded by the petroleum industry is to be believed, reducing emissions could have a big effect on your budget. How the treaty could affect a family's monthly expenses:
Natural gas $185 $277
Heating oil 200 310
Electricity 100 148
Gasoline 150 203
* 1996 dollars, projected. Sources: Energy Information Administration: WEFA, Inc., Newsweek Research; Dept. of Energy
Critics of the Kyoto pact worry that a pollution tax will be the only way to reduce emissions. But the Dept. of Energy says conservation measures and an increase in energy effiency could make a big difference:
Use new technology to get better gas mileage in cars and trucks; even inflating tires properly helps. Emissions cut: 50 million to 60 million metric tons per year.
Increase effeciency of major appliances; insulate buildings to use less energy for heating. Emsiions cut: 30 million to 50 million metric tons.
Install circuits in TVs, VCRs and electric toobrushes so they don't draw power in standby mode. Emissions cut: 8 million to 10 million metric tons.
Reroute heat from electric utilities that would otherwise go to waste into nearby factories and buildings. Emissions cut: 20 million to 30 million metric tons.
Replace 3% to 5% of the fuel consumed in coal-burning power plants with paper and crop waste. Emissions cut: 15 million to 25 million metric tons.
Install high-effiency wind turbines (where it makes economic sense) in Calif., Texas and the Dakotas. Emissions cut: 6 million to 20 million metric tons.