US blocks action on greenhouse effect


By Peter Boyle

In mid-February, while the oil war raged in the Middle East, the US government was blocking progress on an international treaty to address the urgent problem of global warming. After the oil war had come to a bloody end (of sorts), the White House unveiled a new national energy policy which promises a freer hand for oil companies and the nuclear industry. On all fronts the United States was fighting to defend its "right" to consume and pollute more than any other country.

Washington's closest allies in the Gulf War were Britain and Saudi Arabia. The US headed another coalition — dubbed the "Fossil Coalition" by environmentalists — which has frustrated work of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Britain and Saudi Arabia are also in this coalition, along with Japan, Canada and the USSR. All of these countries are major consumers and/or producers of fossil fuels.

The IPCC was set up by delegates from 130 countries in Toronto in 1988 at the first world conference on climatic change. Three working groups were established — one to evaluate the scientific evidence on the threat of major climate change as a result of human activity, another to evaluate social and economic impacts and the last to draft policy responses.

The conclusions of the scientific working group (which brought together 170 of the world's top scientists in the field, who submitted their work to review by another 200 scientists), released last August, were unambiguous: global warming is taking place and immediate action is needed to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, in particular carbon dioxide (CO2), if serious consequences such as agricultural failure, destruction of ecosystems and rising sea levels are to be avoided.

But immediate action proved harder to organise. The second world climate conference, in November 1990, bogged down in talk. The US opposed attempts to attempts to limit CO2 emissions and opposed aid and technology transfer to the Third World to prevent climate change. It even objected to references to "global warming" and insisted that documents refer only to "possible climate change".

The delegates agreed only to meet again in February, when, it was hoped, a draft treaty could be agreed upon as the basis for intergovernmental negotiations which would culminate in another conference in Brazil in 1992.

Demand for 'proof'

At the February meeting, held in Chantilly, Virginia, USA, delegates from 101 countries (some poorer countries can't afford to attend endless meetings) were confronted with a US delegation that still refused to accept global warming as a fact, that CO2 should be named as a greenhouse gas and that there should be international agreement on setting limits to the emission of such gases.

US officials demanded "conclusive proof" that global warming is linked to the increasing emission of greenhouse gases before they agreed to the kind of action the scientists prescribed.

The problem with this, as the IPCC scientific working group pointed out, is that if we wait for this conclusive proof (which will come by the end of this century), it may be too late to do much about preventing climate change.

The representatives of low-lying island nations, which could disappear if global warming results in a rising sea-level, were outraged by the US stand. Robert Van Lierop of Vanuatu told the meeting that nations like his "do not have the luxury of waiting for conclusive proof" of serious global warming.

After two weeks of verbal sparring, the US finally agreed to start negotiations on "appropriate commitments" to reduction of greenhouse gases. The next IPCC meeting is in June, but until then there is no draft treaty to begin negotiating on, so several more precious months have been squandered.

The US eventually agreed in principle to join other wealthy nations in assisting the Third World to forgo the use of the most polluting fuels. But it blocked the establishment of any new programs to help the Third World cope with this task, claiming that existing aid programs would suffice.

"It doesn't make sense to write blank cheques when there are already billions of dollars spent on development issues and not all spent sensibly on the environment", said White House representative Michael Deland.

Increasing carbon dioxide

But even as Deland spoke, the Bush administration was putting its finishing touches (cuts) to a national energy strategy, which was released on March 3. According to the February 16 New Scientist, first drafts of the strategy included efficiency standards for cars, taxes to discourage consumption of fossil fuels and subsidies for energy-saving investments. The White House axed these early in the piece.

The last to get the chop were plans requiring more efficient electric lights and tax benefits for generators of wind, solar and geothermal energy. What was left was a go-ahead for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the Californian coast, and a reduction of controls over the nuclear industry.

"The US is planning for large increases in CO2 emissions while the European Community is planning decreases", Dr Daniel Lashof, senior scientist of the Natural Resources Defense Council (an environmental group), told a US House of Representatives environmental subcommittee on March 4. Every industrialised country other than the US had made some commitment to greenhouse gas emission reductions in the last few months, he pointed out.

Lashof noted that the key responsibility lies with the industrialised countries, which contain only 25% of the world's population but global emissions of CO2 from the energy sector. "Reducing energy-related CO2 emissions from industrialised countries is the most important action needed to combat global warming", he said.

The European Community has adopted an aggregate target of stabilising CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, with reductions thereafter. Germany, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand are committed to emission reductions of 20% by 2005.

Yet even this is not enough, according to Lashof. He referred to a recent study by the Stockholm Environment Institute that showed that the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gasses would have to be limited to the equivalent of 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 if dangerous interference with the climate is to be avoided. The concentration of greenhouse gasses is already over 350 ppm, so the industrialised countries will have to cut their emissions by at least 50% by the year 2005, to keep within the 400 ppm limit. After 2005, further reductions will be necessary.

Chantilly shell game

US officials presented the February IPCC meeting with what the New York Times described as a "transparent gimmick" and environmentalists called "the Chantilly shell game" (now you see it, now you don't) . It claimed that it would reduce greenhouse gas emission in the US by 3% even while increasing CO2 emissions by 15%!

The trick is to include cuts in chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — already limited under the Montreal Protocol because of the threat to the ozone layer. No other country has tried this form of double accounting.

A conservative report by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), released in January, showed that the US could reduce its CO2 emissions by 29 to 35% within the next 25 years. The report embarrassed the Bush administration, which has claimed that significant CO2 cuts are technically and economically impossible to achieve.

The OTA study "Changing By Degrees: Steps To Reduce Greenhouse Gases" — commissioned in 1988 by six Congressional committees — concluded that the 29-35% reduction can be achieved at minimal cost. The study shows that under a strong-measures scenario, in which net CO2 reductions are made almost entirely by emission reduction, the US might save from US$20 billion to US$150 billion a year.

The Sierra Club, a leading environmental lobby group, estimates that if it was legislated that new cars in the US had to use 40% less fuel by the year 2001, this would save 2.8 million barrels of oil a day. This is 10 times the projected output of oil wells in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Other environmentalists have pointed out that, if the US economy wasn't "hooked on cheap oil", there would not be any reason for oil wars. As an aside, a preliminary report from the International Oil Agency estimates that in the first two weeks of the Gulf War, the US 00,000 to 700,000 barrels of oil a day (80% in plane fuel).

So what was the US up to at Chantilly? The Climate Action Network, an alliance of US environmental groups, warned that the Bush administration was out to ensure that international action on global warming proceeds at a "glacial pace" and that this does not bode well for future negotiations.

Who benefits

According to Leslie Gelb of the New York Times, part of the reason the US is blocking progress on international action is that both President George Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, are "Texas oilmen". While this may provide these men with some personal incentives, the heart of the problem is that the most powerful state in the world is in the service of the corporate giants. Seven of the 10 largest corporations in the world are either energy companies or car makers. Six of the 10 are US-based. Burning oil is in their interest.

The energy corporations are already sketching out their strategies. According to Fortune magazine's Special Oil Report (September 1990), the energy corporations hope to enjoy growing oil sales at cheap prices with a transition to natural gas and coal as viable oil reserves are depleted.

Last month, the International Energy Agency increased its estimates for oil consumption in the capitalist world for 1991 by 500,000 barrels a day. The cheaper oil ensured by the US victory in the Gulf War is expected to boost consumption.

Yet it is no longer politically tenable for Bush and Baker to take an overtly anti-environmental stance. Both made speeches about tackling the greenhouse effect during the last elections. So they have distanced themselves from the energy war in the IPCC and left the dirty work to White House chief of staff John Sununu. Sununu proved his credentials by sacking a State Department official who made the mistake of taking the Bush-Baker election pledges seriously.

Sununu argues that scientists have failed to prove that there is a global warming trend, that recent temperature increases are caused by greenhouse gases or that average temperature rises of 1-3° C will have any damaging effects. And even if the scientists are right, he says, current solutions are too costly and cheaper ones will emerge in the future. The problem for Sununu and the forces he represents is that the most of the world doesn't want to gamble the environment for the sake of the profits of the energy corporations.