Climate Change Policy: Contrasting the U.S. and the European Union Approaches

In response to the concerns of environmental groups and some in the scientific community about the possibility of large-scale global warming attributable to human activities, a series of international meetings on climate policy were held starting in 1990. These meetings culminated with the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which the United States negotiated in December, 1997. The Protocol calls for industrial economies such as the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan to reduce their collective emissions of six greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by 2008–2012. The U.S. target is a 7 percent reduction from 1990 levels. This amounts to a projected 538 million metric ton cutback in carbon emissions relative to the projected amount in 2010, or about a 30 percent reduction in emissions compared to the baseline forecast. The EU target is an 8 percent reduction.

Since the negotiation of the Protocol in 1997, differences in the U.S. and EU approaches to the issue have become sharper. The U.S. Senate, which must consent to ratification of any treaty negotiated by a U.S. President before the treaty can become law, has made its objections to the treaty very clear. The passage in 1997 of the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel Resolution in the Senate by a 95 to 0 vote shows the seriousness of congressional opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. The Byrd-Hagel Resolution states that the Senate will not ratify any climate policy treaty that negatively impacts U.S. economic growth or fails to require developing country participation in emission cutbacks in the same time frame as cutbacks for developed countries.

In contrast, the EU, through its ruling body, the European Commission, has embraced (in principle) the near-term emission cutbacks required by the Protocol. On June 22, 2000, the EU’s Environmental Council adopted a set of Conclusions on the Community’s strategy on climate change, including setting the rules for the different mechanisms and instruments for cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the Kyoto Protocol. What factors, economic, political, or cultural, can explain the different paths (and timetables) to climate change policy favored by many U.S. policymakers and those of its ally, the European Union?

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