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The Secret History of Climate Alarmism

A very German story of power politics disguised as environmentalism

Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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But a funny thing happened on the way to the Kyoto Protocol. The German plans to unite all the industrialized countries in a common effort to reduce “greenhouse gas” emissions gave rise to a treaty that placed the overwhelming bulk of the emissions reduction burden on the United States and, to a lesser extent, Japan. 

American criticism of the protocol has typically focused on the pass given to major industrializing nations like China and India. The treaty creates no concrete obligations for so-called developing countries. Only the 39 countries named in Annex I of the framework convention are assigned emissions reduction or limitation targets. All other parties to the agreement got, in effect, a free ride. Indeed, some are even paid to ride. By participating in what is known as the Clean Development Mechanism, developing countries may actually earn revenue under the Kyoto arrangements by selling “carbon credits” to countries with treaty obligations. 

But the fact is that even many “Annex I” countries have no obligation to reduce their emissions under the Kyoto arrangements. Some are even expressly permitted to increase them. This group includes not only Australia and Norway, but also, thanks to an ancillary agreement, several EU member states. Others are only required to keep their emissions stable. Still others are assigned nominal emissions reduction targets, which, however, on closer inspection turn out to be de facto licenses to increase their emissions. Perhaps most remarkably of all, Germany—the would-be pacesetter in the global effort to reduce emissions—ended up having at most only a relatively trivial reduction requirement under Kyoto.

To understand how this could be so—and, above all, how it could have been so widely overlooked—we should return to the German commission of inquiry’s report and consider the date of its submission. October 2, 1990. One day later, German reunification took place. When the commission proposed its ambitious target of a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions for Germany and other “economically strong industrialized countries,” the inevitable demise of East Germany’s highly inefficient, enormously carbon-intensive industries was already underway. This is significant because the commission also proposed backdating the reference year for measuring emissions reductions to a year before the actual coming into force of the treaty. The reference year that would finally be settled upon was none other than 1990. 

This reference year assured Germany a substantial carbon savings windfall from the phasing out of East Germany’s obsolete industrial infrastructure. According to official statistics, from 1990 to 1995 CO2 emissions in the eastern German states fell by a whopping 44 percent. 

Germany was, moreover, not the only country to benefit from its statistical good fortune. A little-known feature of the Kyoto agreement permitted Germany to “share” its windfall with other European countries. The Bundestag’s commission of inquiry had called on the German government to establish a common emissions reduction target with its EU partners. The actual individual contributions of each of the countries could vary and were to be decided amongst themselves. Article 4 of the Kyoto Protocol is clearly designed to accommodate such an arrangement—known as a “bubble” among Kyoto cognoscenti.

Thus, under the terms agreed in Kyoto in 1997, each of the 15 countries that then comprised the EU is nominally committed to reducing emissions by 8 percent from 1990 levels. But, thanks to their formation of a “bubble,” in reality the “EU-15” are only committed to collectively reducing their emissions by 8 percent. The real individual commitments of each of the countries were agreed upon prior to their ratification of Kyoto in 2002. It should be noted that, in keeping with yet another German initiative, the emissions reduction targets concern not just CO2, but rather a bundle of “greenhouse gases” of which CO2 is the most important component. The addition of the other gases further improved Germany’s emissions record. 

Germany agreed to a 21 percent reduction in emissions. This was a far cry from the 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions alone that the commission had recommended. It was also less than a 25 percent emissions reduction goal that the German government had set for itself. Nonetheless, a 21 percent reduction seems on first glance to represent a very generous contribution. 

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