- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Kyoto Protocol is an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Kyoto’s supporters believe those scientists who say the observed rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1900 has caused a rise in atmospheric temperature. They argue that curbs on the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are needed to prevent catastrophic effects on the Earth’s climate. Other scientists argue the Earth is in a warming trend unrelated to human effects, and they dispute results of models used to predict long-term warming and its effects.

Kyoto came into force in February 2005. It assigns mandatory targets for the reduction of GHGs, mainly carbon dioxide. For example, the European Union member nations and other developed countries have agreed to reduce their emissions of GHGs to 5.2 percent below their 1990 baseline over years 2008 to 2012. Developing countries, notably India and China, are not bound by limits on GHGs. Although these caps on emissions are national-level commitments, in practice most countries impose targets on individual power plants and factories. Enterprises that exceed their targets face a penalty that are avoidable if they buy carbon offsets from other parties with excess allowances.

On July 25, 1997, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed by a 95-0 vote the Byrd-Hagel Resolution which stated the sense of the Senate was that the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol that did not include binding targets and timetables for developing as well as industrialized nations or “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States.”

The Senate vote was not, however, the end of the matter in the United States. Nine Northeastern states have decided to adopt Kyoto-style legal limits on GHG emissions under what is called a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). And, in August 2006, the California Legislature agreed to the Global Warming Solutions Act that calls for the state’s GHGs to be cut by 25 percent by the year 2020. Also, Seattle’s mayor recently started a nationwide effort to get cities to agree to GHG limits.

Some of the adverse effects of carbon caps are easily predictable. About 50 percent of U.S. electrical energy comes from power plants that burn coal, the fuel with the highest carbon content. To meet carbon caps, the coal-burning utilities will switch to natural gas as a boiler fuel and also replace at least the older, inefficient coal plants with gas turbines. Also, during periods of high demand, emission limits will force power companies to cut supply and hence make brownouts more frequent. More damaging will be the switch to natural gas. This will rapidly deplete domestic gas reserves; we will soon have to depend on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) and this will further drive up gas prices for electricity and home heating. In Europe, the inevitable switch to gas will further tighten Russia’s grip on the energy supplies of the EU countries.

If power producers want to buy carbon offsets, they will find they have to pay for such things as windmills in India, factory pollution controls in China, or geothermal plants in Kenya. In the U.S., we will be not only be buying shoes and shirts from China but sending China billions for carbon offsets. Incidentally, the country with the largest stock of carbon credits for sale is Russia, where there has been a dramatic drop in energy generation since the collapse of its economy in 1990, the base year for establishing limits.

Instead of such a headlong and economically destructive rush to carbon caps, we in the United States should defer any GHG restrictions until we restructure our energy system and policies in a way that would eventually make curbs on carbon emission economically and socially feasible. The objectives would be to replace the old and inefficient coal plants with nuclear plants over 15 to 20 years, to expand use of coal gasification to fuel gas turbines, and to open all off-shore areas and the Alaska Reserve for oil and gas exploration. If we take this route, we would eventually have the tools to cut carbon emissions, instead of misguided near-term initiatives like RGGI where an attempt to meet even the modest targets will only disrupt energy markets at great cost to consumers and the economy as whole. Programs to curb other GHGs can proceed such as measures to reduce methane releases from coal mines, but it is absurd to impose any meaningful limits on carbon emissions when so much of our energy comes from coal.

According to the Kyoto believers, cutting emissions of GHGs to 5 percent below the 1990 level by 2012 would reduce the calculated temperature rise in 2050 by a virtually undetectable 0.02 degrees Celsius. Clearly, there is time to reshape our energy systems to improve their economic and environmental performance without recourse to infeasible and ineffective controls.

WILLIAM T. SMITH

Consultant in the field of natural resources.

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