Ex-Clinton Aides Admit Kyoto Treaty Flawed

Originally ran on June 11, 2001 on USA TODAY’s website.

WASHINGTON — As President Bush headed off Monday to face environmental critics in Europe, he fired a parting shot at the global warming treaty he has rejected. He called the Kyoto Protocol unrealistic, costly and “fatally flawed.”

In that assessment, he has some unexpected supporters: Clinton administration experts.

Economists from the Clinton White House now concede that complying with Kyoto’s mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases would be difficult — and more expensive to American consumers than they thought when they were in charge.

That reassessment helped fuel Bush’s decision to reject the Kyoto treaty, said Lawrence Lindsey, the president’s economic adviser. Instead of embracing binding limits on greenhouse gases, Bush pledged on Monday a modest package of actions to combat global warming. They include a research initiative to fill gaps in scientists’ understanding of climate change and increased use of renewable energy. But he didn’t call for new money.

“America’s unwillingness to embrace a flawed treaty should not be read by our friends and allies as any abdication of responsibility,” said Bush, who is expected to hear vociferous complaints about his approach during his five-nation tour of Europe. Bush said the treaty would harm the economy and exclude China, the world’s second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases after the USA.

The treaty, negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, aimed to combat emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases that most scientists believe trap heat in the atmosphere. The treaty required the United States to reduce its emissions by 2012 to 7% below its 1990 levels.

At the time, the Clinton White House estimated that the cost of reaching that target was relatively low: about $7 billion to $12 billion a year starting in 2008, when binding reductions would begin phasing in. An average household’s energy bills would rise $70-$110 a year, and gasoline prices would inch up no more than 6 cents a gallon, the White House said.

Other government cost estimates were far higher. The Department of Energy estimated that gasoline prices would have to rise 66 cents a gallon — or 53% over a projected 2010 price — to meet Kyoto’s emissions targets.

To keep his cost estimates down, President Clinton envisioned an emissions-trading system in which countries unable to meet the greenhouse-gas reduction targets would get credits for helping other nations exceed the standards. The idea was that when all the treaty’s members averaged out their emissions, the world’s total output would meet a global target.

For example: If the United States wanted to emit more carbon dioxide one year, it could help Russia get below its emissions standard by paying high-polluting Russian industries to adopt technologies to clean up their dirty plants.

Clinton administration economists say that, in retrospect, their low cost estimates were unrealistic. They assumed that:

China and India would accept binding emission limits and would fully participate in the emissions-trading system, even though they never signed the treaty.

European opposition to emissions trading could be overcome.

Most industries and consumers would quickly adopt new, energy-efficient technologies, such as advanced air conditioning systems and gas-electric “hybrid” cars, without financial incentives.

Since 1997, however, it has become clear that consumers love their gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles and aren’t embracing energy-efficient technologies; China has no intention of participating in the treaty; and Europe still wants to limit emissions trading as a partial solution to global warming.

Todd Stern, Clinton’s global warming coordinator, says that the Europeans would likely go along with an unlimited trading system if the Bush administration would return to the negotiating table to produce a revised treaty it could sign. However, he concedes that China won’t participate for now.

Leaving China out of a trading scheme would double the Clinton cost estimate, says Joseph Aldy, who helped develop the estimates for Clinton. “We always thought the (emissions) targets were very ambitious,” he says. “But the thing that made us really uneasy about our analysis … was that if our assumptions didn’t come true, you could come out with costs that were much, much higher.”

Another problem is that energy-efficiency breakthroughs have stalled as governments argue over the treaty, says a supporter of the treaty. “As the clock ticks, this becomes a more and more difficult job,” says Kathleen McGinty, who chaired Clinton’s Council on Environmental Quality.

Even so, Clinton economists say, Bush could have tried to revise the treaty to reflect these new realities. By simply walking away from it, he is letting the Europeans portray the United States as the villain, even though they privately admit that they, too, may be unable to comply with the treaty. “George Bush has done all the work for the Europeans,” says Robert Lawrence, a Clinton administration economist now at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Lindsey, however, insists that the Kyoto Protocol is beyond repair. “The models are not even close in suggesting Kyoto was the right approach,” he says. “It was wrong. I think we did the right thing.”

Contributing: Laurence McQuillan and Traci Watson