GENEVA — Facing the prospect of an overheated world, the United States has proposed, for the first time, the idea of a binding international agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
The proposal, announced during this week's United Nations conference on climate change in Geneva, comes in the wake of scientific evidence that concludes that if greenhouse-gas emissions go unchecked, the world could suffer serious food, health, and land problems.
To counter that trend, Timothy Wirth, US undersecretary of state for global affairs, announced US plans to ask countries to agree to a binding target for emissions, using flexible means of reaching that target.
"We're saying voluntary regimes don't work," Mr. Wirth says. "We need workable and binding targets that let each nation develop its own program. But developed countries must take up the lead because we are the people primarily responsible for fouling up the nest as it is today."
The American plan calls for international trading of "pollution permits," a system similar to a current US policy regarding acid rain.
The acid-rain prevention program began in 1989, when Wirth, then a US Senator from Colorado, and the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, designed Project 88, a system that limits the total sulfur dioxide emissions. Sulfur dioxide is seen to be a leading cause of acid rain.
The project puts a cap on emissions, but gives individual utilities flexibility in deciding how much they will pollute. Air permits, issued in limited numbers, allow companies to emit a specific amount of pollutants. Utilities then buy or sell these air permits to each other, thereby letting those that are willing to pay for producing greater emissions to do so. The cost of the air-polluting permits to deters utilities from producing excessive emissions.
The US wants to apply the principle globally. A group of countries, or perhaps all nations, would trade the emission quotas.
The Washington, D.C.-based Business Council for Sustainable Energy already has announced its support for this pollution-permit trading system. The council says such a system would promote technology transfer and help developing countries meet what would eventually be a binding emissions-reduction target.
"An air-credit trading regime would best capture market efficiencies and promote technology transfer," said Terry Thorn, senior vice president of Enron Corp., and a business council member.
However, Kevin Fay, executive director of the International Climate Change Partnership, a worldwide coalition of companies and trade associations, says the US proposal for binding commitments is unrealistic without carefully defined roles for developing nations. The developing countries, which will be the first to suffer from climate changes, also must orient themselves toward nonpolluting energy production, he says.
Despite evidence that human-induced climate change threatens humanity, developing countries have more immediate concerns, says Chen Chimutengwende, Zimbabwe's minister for environment and tourism.
"For many of these countries, more pressing concerns such as health, housing, and education take precedence," Mr. Chimutengwende says.
"For developing countries to divert scarce resources to climate-change policies, they will need to be shown that [these] policies can generate short- and long-term benefits." The US also endorses "joint implementation" as a way to enlist developing nations in support for greenhouse-gas reductions.
Joint implementation is a way for countries to form partnerships to cut their costs of lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. Partners could range from international and national organizations to state and municipal utility companies and private foundations.
Under this plan, programs would have to be environmentally, economically, and socially feasible. There would have to be provisions for monitoring and third-party verification of whether gases are being reduced.
These proposals differ from a 1992 Rio de Janeiro treaty that set a nonbinding goal of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Recent evidence shows that deeper cuts are needed, and that most countries, including the US, won't meet that goal.
The US hasn't set a target date or percentage cut for its emissions. It says proposals by small island nations for 20 percent cuts by 2005 are unrealistic.
Eileen Claussen, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, said long-term goals are needed to reach a reduction target by the next climate change conference scheduled for December 1996 in Tokyo.