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Loopholes Proposed By U.S. May Undermine Global Warming Treaty

Administration Accounting Gimmicks Could Allow 18 Percent Pollution Rise While Technically Meeting Treaty Requirements, New Analysis Finds

Washington - Clinton Administration proposals for next week's crucial international climate change negotiations could enable the United States to technically meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while in reality increasing emissions by as much as 18 percent, according to a report released today. The report, "Legacy of Loopholes," was prepared by National Environmental Trust (NET), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Using U.S. government data and peer-reviewed research and analysis, the report details the impact of three of the proposed loopholes. It concludes that if U.S. government positions on the Kyoto climate change treaty are adopted in The Hague, Netherlands, the U.S. could meet as much as 84 percent of its target by getting credit for action that would have happened anyway.

"Accounting gimmicks may fool bureaucrats, but they will not fool Mother Nature," said Alden Meyer, director of government relations for UCS. "The climate treaty must make real cuts of real pollution or the severe storms and other impacts that we are already starting to see will only get worse."

"The Clinton Administration pledged two years ago to complete the treaty in The Hague," said Philip Clapp, president of NET. "The White House must live up to that commitment so that Europe, Russia and Japan can begin ratification. It may take the U.S. longer, but we shouldn't stand in the way of other nations who want to begin fighting global warming."

To meet its commitment of a 7 percent reduction of its 1990 emissions levels, the United States would need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 500 to 600 million metric tons of carbon (MMtC) over this decade. The three most questionable proposed loopholes to achieve that reduction are in "emissions trading" with countries whose emissions are lower than their targets; investment in emissions reduction projects overseas; and carbon sequestration in forests and other ecosystems.

"People around the world want their leaders in The Hague to bring home real reductions in carbon pollution - not paper cuts with paper tons," said Jennifer Morgan, director of WWF's climate change campaign. "Millions of messages have been sent to world leaders on climatevoice.org calling for an environmentally sound Kyoto Protocol. President Clinton should bring home a treaty that cuts global warming pollution in the U.S."

The three loopholes analyzed in the report:

Emissions trading = as much as 175 million metric tons of carbon (MMtC) in dubious credits, or 34 percent of U.S. requirements. The Kyoto treaty contains a provision for international emissions trading to reduce the cost of cutting global warming pollution. Unfortunately, the U.S. and some of its partners support so-called "hot air trading," which would allow Russia and other former Soviet states to sell pollution permits they have accumulated because of their economic collapse - not because they took any concrete measures to reduce pollution.

Forests and carbon sequestration = as much as 180 MMtC in dubious credits, or 36 percent of U.S. requirement. Forests and other ecosystems are reservoirs (or sinks) for carbon dioxide, but they can never be large enough, or safe enough, to solve the global warming problem by themselves. The United States and other countries can earn some emission credits by reforesting areas that had been cleared prior to 1990, but overall U.S. forests are removing less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere now than they were in 1990. Unfortunately, the U.S. is seeking to get credit, through an accounting trick, for the carbon that existing land management practices absorb - practices that are no different from what would have otherwise occurred.

The Clean Development Mechanism = as much as 60 MMtC in dubious credits, or 14 percent of U.S. requirement. The CDM allows industrialized countries to meet some of their targets by investing in emissions reduction projects in developing countries. The U.S. advocates rules that could not only promote environmentally unsound technologies, such as large-scale hydroelectric and nuclear power, but could give credit for many projects that would happened anyway in developing countries. With such rules, the CDM would fail to promote distributed renewable energy, energy efficiency and reduction in pollution from burning coal and other fossil fuels.

These three loopholes alone could account for as much as 415 MMtC, or 84 percent of the total 500 to 600 MMtC the U.S. needs to reduce to meet its treaty targets. If this occurs, greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. could increase by 18 percent from 1990 levels and the U.S. would still meet its "reduction" target.

"The latest scientific assessment confirms that pollution has already caused substantial global warming and that a continuation of business as usual would have potentially disastrous impacts," said Dan Lashof, senior scientist at NRDC. "The United States can and should meet its obligations to reduce global warming pollution with real emission reductions from power plants, automobiles and other sources, not accounting tricks."

Major international companies have recently committed to far more ambitious greenhouse pollution cuts, including Johnson & Johnson, Polaroid and IBM. For more information, visit WWF's Climate Saver's program.

Several organizations, including NET, NRDC, UCS and WWF, have produced analyses showing that the U.S. can meet its reduction targets in a cost-effective manner by reducing fossil fuel use through a combination of greater efficiency in energy use in every sector of the economy, along with accelerated deployment of renewable energy technologies. A significant fraction of these reductions pay for themselves on a project-by-project basis, and the overall savings from increases in energy efficiency are great enough to offset the incremental cost of other projects.

Read the report "Legacy of Loopholes" (PDF format)