Kyoto Protocol Faces Troubling Future

Parties to the Kyoto Protocol are meeting in Montreal at the end of the month — just as it is becoming increasingly clear that the agreement is in trouble. Major emitters like the United States, China, and India aren't part of the agreement — and many signers won't meet their targets.

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Next week the nations that signed the Kyoto climate change treaty in 1997 will meet in Montreal, Canada. It's their biggest gathering since the treaty was signed. The pact requires countries to reduce the so-called greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The Kyoto agreement may not ultimately make much of a dent in warming; that's because the US never signed on, nor have many large developing countries. But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, many people and businesses in the US are taking matters into their own hands.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE reporting:

When Charles Foster said he wanted a `green' building, his contractor replied, `Mister, I can paint it any color you want.' $6 1/2 million later, Foster got a three-story brown building made of wood and glass. It houses the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland. Foster is the chief of staff.

Mr. CHARLES FOSTER (Chief of Staff, Chesapeake Bay Foundation): This is where we spent all the money.

JOYCE: The basement is a maze of pipes and pumps.

Mr. FOSTER: This is a geothermal system. If we were here in the summertime, during one of the maximum energy-use periods, which is cooling, we wouldn't be able to have this conversation down here. These pumps would be screaming.

JOYCE: The pumps circulate water 400 feet underground, then back into the building. The system uses the earth as a sort of radiator, cooling the water in summer and warming it in winter.

(Soundbite of pumps; door closing)

JOYCE: There are also solar panels, and the windows face the south.

Mr. FOSTER: We save 40 percent per year in our energy costs, which is roughly about $25,000 per year.

JOYCE: And it saves carbon. Foster says his energy-efficient devices reduce carbon emissions by 320,000 pounds a year; that means less heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.

Next week in Montreal, the Kyoto countries will talk about how to get more people to use these kinds of off-the-shelf technologies. They have five years, starting in 2008, to make the cuts in greenhouse gases called for in the treaty. Even before the clock starts ticking, however, Kyoto is in trouble. Some nations are hinting they won't make their targets. Some of the world's biggest emitters--the US, China and India, for example--are not playing. Eileen Clawson, who heads the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says the Kyoto experiment was a good start, but the lesson so far is this.

Ms. EILEEN CLAWSON (Pew Center on Global Climate Change): The notion that there is a one-size-fits-all formula for all countries in the world is simply, I think, inoperable. I think it just doesn't work. Countries are really quite different.

JOYCE: Clawson says the tough discussions in Montreal will focus on what to do after Kyoto expires in 2012. One line of thought is that industries, not necessarily nations, will have to take the lead.

Mr. PRESTON CHIARO (Rio Tinto): Perceptions in society and politics will drive us towards tighter and tighter restrictions on carbon emissions. So we think it's best to just get on with it. There's lots of steps we can be taking right now.

JOYCE: Preston Chiaro is energy chief for Rio Tinto, one of the world's biggest mining companies. He notes that the Bush administration has pledged billions for research into new carbon-cutting technologies, but there needs to be more incentive to buy them.

Mr. CHIARO: To move into a new technology is going to require them to take a leap in terms of the higher risk level just because it's unknown technology to them. What incentive do they have to take those risks? Government policies that would encourage or help mitigate those risks would go a long way towards spreading the technology faster.

JOYCE: Incentives like tax breaks that encourage the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to put up its green building. Another trend that will get attention in Montreal is what's happening in the US outside of Washington. At least nine states and numerous cities are not waiting for the federal government to require carbon cuts; they're doing it themselves. Economists say these states and cities now represent about a quarter of the US population. That groundswell is a welcome development for people like Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group that supports the Kyoto Treaty.

Mr. ALDEN MEYER (Union of Concerned Scientists): Other major countries in this process have to keep their finger on the pulse of American politics and policy on this issue, and that's not just the Bush administration. I think you can start to argue that the Bush administration is almost irrelevant.

JOYCE: What's not irrelevant is the US economy. It's the largest carbon emitter in the world; China and India are close behind. Climate experts say warming can't be curbed unless they find a way to get these countries into the carbon-cutting club. They suspect that way will not look much like the Kyoto protocol. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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