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What is the Kyoto Protocol?


Jaenschwalde Coal-Fired Power Plant
Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images


Advocates of the Kyoto Protocol claim that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is an essential step in slowing or reversing global warming, and that immediate multinational collaboration is needed if the world is to have any serious hope of preventing devastating climate changes.

Scientists agree that even a small increase in the average global temperature would lead to significant climate and weather changes, and profoundly affect plant, animal and human life on Earth.

Warming Trend
Many scientists estimate that by the year 2100 the average global temperature will increase by 1.4 degrees to 5.8 degrees Celsius (approximately 2.5 degrees to 10.5 degrees Fahrenheit). This increase represents a significant acceleration in global warming. For example, during the 20th century the average global temperature increased only 0.6 degrees Celsius (slightly more than 1 degree Fahrenheit).

This acceleration in the build-up of greenhouse gases and global warming is attributed to two key factors:

  1. the cumulative effect of 150 years of worldwide industrialization; and
  2. factors such as overpopulation and deforestation combined with more factories, gas-powered vehicles and machines worldwide.

Action Needed Now
Advocates of the Kyoto Protocol argue that taking action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could slow or reverse global warming, and prevent or mitigate many of the most severe problems associated with it. Many view the U.S. rejection of the treaty as irresponsible, and accuse President Bush of pandering to the oil and gas industries.

Because the United States accounts for so many of the world’s greenhouse gases and contributes so much to the problem of global warming, some experts have suggested that the Kyoto Protocol cannot succeed without U.S. participation.



Arguments against the Kyoto Protocol generally fall into three categories: it demands too much; it achieves too little; or it is unnecessary.

In rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, which 178 other nations had accepted, President Bush claimed that the treaty requirements would harm the U.S. economy, leading to economic losses of $400 billion and costing 4.9 million jobs. Bush also objected to the exemption for developing nations. The president’s decision brought heavy criticism from U.S. allies and environmental groups in the U.S. and around the world.

Kyoto Critics Speak Out
Some critics, including a few scientists, are skeptical of the underlying science associated with global warming and say there is no real evidence that Earth’s surface temperature is rising due to human activity. For example, Russia’s Academy of Sciences called the Russian government's decision to approve the Kyoto Protocol "purely political," and said that it had "no scientific justification."

Some opponents say the treaty doesn’t go far enough to reduce greenhouse gases, and many of those critics also question the effectiveness of practices such as planting forests to produce emissions trading credits that many nations are relying on to meet their targets. They argue that planting forests may increase carbon dioxide for the first 10 years owing to new forest growth patterns and the release of carbon dioxide from soil.

Others believe that if industrialized nations reduce their need for fossil fuels, the cost of coal, oil and gas will go down, making them more affordable for developing nations. That would simply shift the source of the emissions without reducing them.

Finally, some critics say the treaty focuses on greenhouse gases without addressing population growth and other issues that affect global warming, making the Kyoto Protocol an anti-industrial agenda rather than an effort to address global warming. One Russian economic policy advisor even compared the Kyoto Protocol to fascism.


Where It Stands

Despite the Bush Administration’s position on the Kyoto Protocol, grass-roots support in the U.S. remains strong. By June 2005, 165 U.S. cities had voted to support the treaty after Seattle led a nationwide effort to build support, and environmental organizations continue to urge U.S. participation.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration continues to seek alternatives. The U.S. was a leader in forming the Asia-Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate, an international agreement announced July 28, 2005 at meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The United States, Australia, India, Japan, South Korea, and the People’s Republic of China agreed to collaborate on strategies to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by the end of the 21st century. ASEAN nations account for 50 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, population and GDP. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, which imposes mandatory targets, the new agreement allows countries to set their own emissions goals, but with no enforcement.

At the announcement, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the new partnership would complement the Kyoto agreement: “I think climate change is a problem and I don't think Kyoto is going to fix it...I think we've got to do so much more than that.”

Looking Ahead
Whether you support U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol or oppose it, the status of the issue is unlikely to change soon. President Bush continues to oppose the treaty, and there is no strong political will in Congress to alter his position, although the U.S. Senate voted in 2005 to reverse its earlier prohitibion against mandatory pollution limits.

The Kyoto Protocol will go forward without U.S. involvement, and the Bush Administration will continue to seek less demanding alternatives. Whether they will prove to be more or less effective than the Kyoto Protocol is a question that won’t be answered until it may be too late to plot a new course.


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