Faith, hope and tact needed for US ratification

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The Clinton administration will embark on the first stage of an uphill struggle to implement the Kyoto protocol when it presents its 1999 budget in February. Officials are this week working to incorporate into Clinton's budget proposal tax incentives for energy efficiency, as well as extra money for energy research, along lines suggested earlier in the year by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

But getting these budget proposals through the Congress will be one of the easier steps required to bring the United States anywhere near its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 7 per cent below their 1990 levels by 2012.

A major diplomatic effort will also be needed to bring the proposed trading scheme for emission permits — as well as some form of meaningful participation by developing countries — into the agreement at the next meeting of parties to the climate convention, to be held in Buenos Aires next autumn. Only then will the US administration consider seeking ratification of the final treaty in the Senate.

Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts), a strong supporter of action to cut emissions, said last week that the protocol was not ready for ratification. He would not be drawn on when it would be ready: “I don't think people should focus on ratification. We should focus on the next steps, such as the Buenos Aires meeting. We'll know when the time is right to bring this before the Senate.”

Kerry points out that such timing is entirely at the discretion of the president. But he hints that the treaty may not be ratified until after 2000, when Vice-President Al Gore hopes to succeed Bill Clinton. If anyone other than Gore is elected with the treaty unratified, its prospects would be extremely bleak.

Short of ratification, the White House can still take some executive actions — such as adjusting the government's own energy use patterns — in line with the treaty. It can also fight for, and possibly win, support for more energy research in budget negotiations with the Congress. But Senate ratification is regarded by most observers as an essential prerequisite for any break in the upward trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

That is because the implementation scheme proposed by Clinton on 22 October relies heavily on emitters’ faith that they will win credits when a trading scheme is introduced, scheduled for 2008 (see Nature 389, 893; 1997). If corporations have no faith that the trading scheme will come into effect, they will not invest in cutting emissions.

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Macilwain, C. Faith, hope and tact needed for US ratification. Nature 390, 650 (1997). https://doi.org/10.1038/37691

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