Kyoto, Pollution and Population

Does Kyoto ignore the facts on population growth and the use of global resources?

August 29, 2002

Does Kyoto ignore the facts on population growth and the use of global resources?

There is one simple fact many U.S. critics have failed to take notice of beyond the U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

These people do not realize that the Treaty would require a great deal of sacrifice from the United States — and surprisingly little from its European supporters.

Just ask yourself this question: Can a grown man whose size has barely changed in a decade lose weight more easily than a teenager still growing by four or five pounds a year?

The correct answer is obvious.

But this answer is not only denied, it is violently decried by Europe’s political leaders — and many environmentalists.

This is the nub of the battle over the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Environmental performance cannot be viewed in a vacuum.

In particular, it is considerably more difficult to improve environmental performance when a society's population is growing.

Conversely, a country with a stable population, with less demand for water and power — and fewer cars on the road — can expect to find it much easier to achieve environmental improvement.

So much for the principle. On to the facts: U.S. President George W. Bush renounced the Kyoto Protocol because the U.S. population will grow by 25% between 1990 and 2010.

By contrast, population growth in Europe, Japan and Russia, the other major signatories of Kyoto, will be zero, or declining — or very nearly so.

Yet, the United States is required to slice carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 7%.

That is roughly similar to the targets for Europe and Japan — 8% and 6% reductions, respectively. Russia needs to make no reductions at all.

It is not as though the treaty did not take population growth into account elsewhere.

Australia — facing significant population growth through 2050 — won an 8% emissions increase under Kyoto.

And even the targets Europe and Japan set for themselves can be met quite easily.

In Europe’s case, the bulk of its compliance will stem from merely completing an existing, 20-year-old trend replacing dirty, low-grade coal under utility boilers with natural gas.

In Japan's case, what's required is to move a little more toward nuclear power — and away from oil and what was left of Japan's coal.

In other words, the treaty requires little real sacrifice from Europe and Japan, whose emissions would fall regardless of what happens because of already existing conditions.

Only the United States faces a real cost to complying with the treaty. It was President Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, who agreed to this garishly lopsided arithmetic.

Why? Because U.S. environmentalists, among his key supporters — along with the rest of the world — view the United States as an immoral wastrel that needs to be punished.

But just how bad is the United States at conservation? Critics of the country point to the 11% growth of U.S. CO2 emissions in the 1990s.

That makes the country out to be an environmental bad boy, all right. Europe, by this measure comes off a lot better. Its CO2 emissions rose just one half of one percent.

But that analysis ignores one simple fact.

During the 1990s, the population of the United States grew 13% — while Europe's population grew about 1%.

In other words, CO2 emissions per American actually fell slightly — as did CO2 emissions per European.

By this measure, the United States is not at all an environmental villain.

Its market-driven conservation techniques have succeeded in reigning in pollution just as much as Europe's government-driven ones.

In 1998, half a year after the treaty was signed, the U.S. Senate condemned Kyoto 95 to 0. Senators at least wanted the treaty to apply to the developing world — now totally exempt.

China, Brazil, India and 120 other poor countries understandably refused to take part.

Kyoto would force slower economic growth on them in the name of an uncertain global warming threat that is impossibly remote compared with their stark present poverty.

Yet, without participation of the poor, worldwide CO2 emissions would still rise 26% by 2010 under Kyoto. That is not much less than the 33% rise that would occur with no Kyoto treaty at all.

What's the point of Kyoto, striving mightily to achieve almost nothing at all?

Just this: The treaty conveniently lets political leaders, especially in Europe, placate their green constituencies, appear to do something big for worried EU voters — but inconvenience those voters hardly at all.

Beyond that, Kyoto in my view is simply an act of self-delusion on the part of Europeans. They are willing to see environmental improvement — provided the price is paid by the United States.