Wise Line on Curbing Emissions

When the world’s nations met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to address the problem of global warming, they spoke in concerned, altruistic tones about their shared duty to safeguard the planet’s future. Then the majority of participants promptly failed to reach the voluntary energy conservation goals they had set.

The tone at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, which began Monday in Kyoto, Japan, has been a lot more contentious because the 5,000 delegates know that this time the plan is to enter into treaties backed by international trade agreements. That has left the United States trying to forge a middle ground between, for instance, Arab states opposed to reducing oil sales and the European Union, which is insisting that fossil fuel emissions be reduced at least 15% from 1990 levels by 2010.

The U.S. goal--a sensible one--is to reduce industrial nations’ average carbon dioxide and other emissions to 1990 levels by 2012, though some flexibility would be allowed for individual nations. That represents a 25% reduction from the levels the United States, with its expanding economy, would otherwise reach.

This goal can be met by encouraging the use of state-of-the-art energy devices, large and small. Compact fluorescent light bulbs, for example, cost a hefty $15 each but save $50 worth of electricity over their lifetimes. New extra-efficient insulation can dramatically reduce heating bills. Almost all new refrigerators and air conditioners use less energy than earlier models. And replacing existing motors in factory equipment with the newest models would, alone, reduce U.S. electrical consumption by about a quarter.

Technological paths to conservation have been successfully used before. Since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 the number of cars has almost doubled while smog in the United States has diminished by a third--the result of great leaps in gas mileage and in cleaning up tailpipe emissions.


So far the poorer of the developing nations, arguing that they are barely on the path to industrialization, have rejected binding caps, and there is little hope of bringing them aboard now. The key then is to get the most advanced developing nations, like China and India, to join the atmospheric cleanup. One key motivator is health risk--already one Chinese death in eight is linked to air pollution. Such a sheer loss of productivity may be the most forceful argument for energy conservation.

The European Union’s goals are honorable but unreachable. The world needs an accord it can abide by, and the U.S. proposal is just that.