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Student’s Analysis of State-Level Kyoto Protocol Efforts Appears in 'Nature'

By Kevin Foley Article published November 16, 2005

While the Bush Administration rejected United States participation in the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a substantial number of states and localities have already adopted or are pursuing similar escalating reduction targets, according to a brief communication published in the Nov. 17 issue of the journal Nature by Brendan Fisher, a doctoral student in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and Robert Costanza, director of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics.

Fisher and Costanza analyzed greenhouse gas reduction policies at the subnational level and found that between 24 and 35 percent of the US population are currently or shortly will be engaged in policies directed towards significantly reducing human-generated climate change. The authors estimate that the effort corresponds to 27 to 49 percent of the gross domestic product. Even the low estimate of 27 percent of the U.S. economy pledged toward significant reductions corresponds to almost a tenth of the entire global economy. Greenhouse gases, most notably carbon dioxide, are primarily produced by burning fossil fuels and tend to trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere, a cycle that most experts believe is causing global climate change.

“We wanted to get people to look at this issue a little differently, to find the true context and color, and see that it’s not a one or zero in terms of US compliance with Kyoto,” says Fisher. “While it is often said the United States is against Kyoto, a substantial percentage of the population would support and is supporting some kind of Kyoto action.”

Fisher adds that the effort to curb emissions at the state- and local-level is important, but cautions that these moves are not a sustainable substitute for a national effort. “Federal involvement will be crucial for their long-term success,” he says. “Involvement at the national level will be crucial for the success of any sort of global emissions trading, monitoring and reporting scheme.”

The Bush administration argues that the Kyoto protocol’s reductions aren’t supported by research, would have devastating consequences for economic growth and are unfair to the developed world. They advocate a system that would reduce the "intensity" of emissions (emissions per unit of GDP) but would permit substantial growth in overall emissions.

Fisher and Costanza’s analysis focuses on states and localities with policies in line with the lower targets established in the Kyoto process, analyzing the populations and economic activities of areas that have adopted the targets, probably will adopt them, or possibly will.

The adopters are California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maine and New Mexico, who together comprise 70 million people (nearly a quarter of the population) and 27 percent of U.S. GDP. The probable adopters are New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, who account for 7 percent of GDP. Possible adopters are 25 different municipalities with a combined population of 12.7 million and a 15 percent share of the GDP.

While none of the state-level programs exceed Kyoto protocol requirements, they are sweeping. The Kyoto agreement calls for countries to reduce emissions 5.2 percent by 2012, while participating Northeastern states have committed to 10 percent reductions by 2020.

The municipalities, identified as possible adopters in the communication, come from a list identified by Cities for Climate Protection, an international non-governmental organization. Inclusion in the list requires establishing an emissions baseline, setting a target for future emissions reductions, creating an action plan and monitoring results. Fisher would like better data on the local initiatives, but says the efforts are meaningful.

“Just the fact that these cities have these programs is significant. That is how the Kyoto protocol started,” he says.

Fisher expects to complete his doctorate in 2006. His primary research interest is in analyzing the effects of economic globalization on social, economic and quality of life measures in developing countries.