President Bush met a barrage of criticism last week when he backed away from regulating carbon dioxide emissions, but he was only hastening the inevitable. A major shift in American policy on global warming had to come not chiefly because of the new administration's debts to campaign donors, but because of the sheer impracticality of the policy in place when George Bush took office. In the long run, Mr. Bush may actually have improved chances for slowing manmade changes in the world's climate.
Until last week, global warming policy was synonymous with the Kyoto Protocol, which requires industrialized countries to control emissions of greenhouse gases according to strict targets and timetables. Environment ministers dominated the negotiations that led to the 1997 protocol, and they sought targets that were symbolically tough but hopelessly unrealistic.
Caught in this fervor, the United States agreed in Kyoto to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases to 7 percent below 1990 levels, on average, from 2008 to 2012. Yet on the eve of the Kyoto negotiations America's emissions were already up nearly 10 percent from 1990 levels, and they have risen about 1.2 percent a year since then. Most of the facilities that will be burning fossil fuels from 2008 to 2012 are already in place today. For that reason alone, the Kyoto Protocol was never likely to be approved and implemented by Congress. Other industrialized countries, too, have recorded rising, not falling, emissions.
Even as it became clear that most governments could not deliver on their Kyoto promises, powerful environmental groups and influential Green parties redoubled their support for the treaty rather than admit the need for adjustment. Under this pressure, every government in every industrialized nation has officially pretended the protocol was workable.
Kyoto's unachievable targets have forced governments into bizarre diplomatic contortions. Some, especially in Europe, approached the Kyoto talks and subsequent negotiations in The Hague with no serious plan for how they would comply with the targets. Others, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan, are pushing for an international emissions trading system whose main effect would be to let them buy vast quantities of bogus emission credits from Russia and Ukraine. At Kyoto, Russia and Ukraine agreed to freeze their emissions at 1990 levels, but because of the collapse of the Soviet economy, they were already emitting greenhouse gases at 40 percent below those levels. So the emissions "reductions" they have available to sell are not real.
By making it clear that the United States won't pretend to meet the Kyoto limits, the Bush administration has, for all intents and purposes, killed the Kyoto Protocol. Now it has a responsibility to build an alternative.
America is ready for a sound policy. The Kyoto Protocol's demise is erasing unrealistic ambitions on the left, and a swelling majority of centrists now recognizes the need for precaution on burning carbon-based fuels. Conservative voices that oppose any control on carbon are fading as more Americans accept the scientific consensus on global warming.
The administration and Congress could assemble a sensible package from legislation already in the works. We should sharply increase funding for research and development on affordable ways to move the economy entirely away from fossil fuels over the next several decades and raise efficiency of fossil-fuel burning in the interim. We should also create an incentive for companies to limit emissions by letting them trade carbon emission permits. Unlike the sulphur dioxide trading system created in 1990 to control acid rain, this one should let the government issue new permits, allowing more emissions, if prices for the credits ever rise above a certain level. That provision would reassure business that the cost of compliance would not skyrocket if cheaper carbon-saving technologies did not become available.
This sort of program would embody the principle around which an effective global emissions reduction regime could also be built economic incentives that, over time, will slow the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere without the imposition of binding targets for a far-off future.
The rest of the world is ready to pin the blame for the Kyoto Protocol's demise on the United States, though all nations that crafted the compact really share the blame. The sooner America takes the lead in devising effective new policies, the better it can lead the world beyond Kyoto.