Greenhouse Compromises

May 17, 1992

The United States is the world's largest industrial economy. It uses more energy than any other nation and is the greatest producer of greenhouse gases. Thus, no treaty such as that to be signed next month at Rio de Janeiro in a multinational summit on global warming could succeed without the cooperation of Americans. A compromise treaty, worked out after long, contentious negotiations between European and U.S. diplomats and environmental regulators, has opened the way for President Bush's participation in the summit.

U.S. economists had fought the treaty as a danger to economic rebirth, noting that too-tight controls on carbon dioxide emission could choke off the country's drive out of recession. Environmentalists, supporting European proposals for mandatory cutbacks to 1990 levels, fought just as hard for strict controls. But if this country is a premier polluter, it also is the premier source of environment-cleaning technology.

Thus, a world summit conference on global warming with the American leader still sitting in Washington would have been a guaranteed debacle. The compromise treaty language finally settled on recently falls far short of what the environmentalists had sought. It does not commit the signatories to a definite target -- limiting emissions of carbon dioxide to 1990 levels, as the Europeans wanted -- or to a definite timetable for reductions.

Still, the compromise does hold promise. If it is vague on reduction targets, its reporting provisions are clear. Countries must detail their programs to cut back emissions. Such sections carry their own teeth. In the United States, Clean Air Act revisions forcing industries to list chemicals they were dumping into the air immediately brought new public pressure to cut them, in some cases well ahead of the law's own requirements.

Creating a clearinghouse for these reports, along with a framework for discussions on the aid which industrialized countries must provide for less developed nations' environmental efforts, is another important step. The treaty establishes a governing body to monitor treaty performance and sets up a long-term process for evaluating and responding to climactic change.

Hard negotiations are still to come, even after this treaty is signed. Rising emissions of industrializing countries such as China and India can only be balanced by cutbacks in developed lands. Having a framework in place to assess such changes and allocate any offsets, established by the treaty, will be critical to success in the future.

In all, it's a good beginning. Environmentalists wanted much more and economists think even these modest goals unduly pinch the U.S. economy, but the compromise ended a long stalemate. First steps always leave room for improvement.

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