US sidetracks Montreal climate talks

Brian Tokar reports for February’s Z Magazine on the recently-concluded Montreal talks on global climate change, aimed at implementing the Kyoto agreement. What’s really dangerous is that this agreement—which the Bush administration is refusing to join, of course—was already essentially gutted by pressure from the more insidious Clinton administration, which pushed through a program of free-market pseudo-solutions. So while Bush stands strong against Kyoto as an assault on American capitalism, what was largely discussed in Montreal was establishing guidelines for buying and selling the right to pollute…

Expectations were high in early December 2005, as 10,000 delegates representing 189 countries converged in Montreal to discuss the future of international measures to limit global climate change. A broad spectrum of international NGOs, from Friends of the Earth to the corporate-friendly Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), described the negotiations as crucial for saving the planet. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin appealed to “global conscience” as he pressed the U.S. to support continuing talks aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. An estimated 30,000 people took to the streets in support of the negotiations. Even Bill Clinton made his mark, appearing in Montreal on the last day of the UN conference to offer his support for a “precautionary” approach to climate change.

But in the end, U.S. obstruction nearly carried the day. The U.S. chief negotiator, Harlan Watson, walked out of the talks after all other countries, except for Saudi Arabia, had dropped their objections to a final draft resolution. Ultimately, facing diplomatic pressure from the UK and other allies, a bipartisan letter from 24 U.S. senators, and the likelihood that the outcome would heighten U.S. isolation, Watson returned to the table and agreed to endorse “open and nonbinding” discussions toward continuing reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, as long as the next round of talks required no “new commitments.”

At stake in Montreal was the continuation of a process that began in Kyoto, Japan in 1997 when 156 countries agreed on measures aimed at reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels by 2012. Developing countries, including India and China, were exempted from mandatory reductions in this first round, but would be eligible for funds that would ultimately help reduce their emissions as well. The U.S. was a signer of the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and thus a participant in the Montreal talks, even though Congress has declined to ratify the more detailed commitments drafted in Kyoto.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol came into full force early last year after the Russian duma finally ratified the agreement, clinching the support of developed countries representing the necessary 55 percent of global greenhouse gases. Russian support proved crucial once the Bush administration affirmed in 2001 that the U.S.—responsible for a quarter of the world’s emissions—would not ratify Kyoto.

The Kyoto Protocol has its Achilles Heel, however, and it’s one clearly labeled “made in the USA.” When the Kyoto talks appeared deadlocked, then-Vice President Al Gore made a surprise appearance. The mainstream press largely credited Gore with saving those talks, but his substantive contribution was to insist that any mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases be tied to the creation of a new global market through which companies achieving better-than-expected reductions could sell “emissions credits” to those less able to do so. This raised the specter of “tradable rights to pollute”—until then a matter of domestic controversy among U.S. environmentalists and policymakers—and made them a potentially universal instrument of global environmental policy.

Thus the discussions in Montreal were not about implementing the technological changes necessary for continuing emission reductions or any of a host of policy measures—from ending fossil fuel subsidies to energy taxes to raising fines for noncompliance—that could ultimately help achieve substantial reductions. Along with the intensive diplomatic effort to keep the U.S. at the table, the main focus of the Montreal meetings was on elaborating, expanding, and refining the emerging global market in carbon dioxide emissions.

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See our last posts on global climate destabilization, the Kyoto Treaty, and its flaws.