A meeting to adjust the world's thermostat

Diplomats begin talks Monday as evidence grows that average temperatures may rise 10 degrees this century.

With gale-force winds, pounding rains, and severe floods from a harsh North Atlantic autumn fresh in mind, delegates from more than 160 nations meet in The Hague today to try to throw earth's climate a lifeline.

During the next two weeks, these delegates hope to put teeth into a 1997 pact that would commit countries to cut the amount of climate-warming gases their cars, factories, and power plants pump into the air.

In the near term, decisions made here could push up energy prices and stunt the growth of developed nations. They might also spur sales of fuel-efficient cars and watt-tight appliances as well as inject fresh activity into national economies. Longer term, scientists and diplomats are making decisions now about the kind of world their grandchildren will live in.

This meeting comes at a time when climate scientists are increasingly confident that human activities are behind the relatively rapid run-up in average global temperatures since the 1860s. By 2100, rising "greenhouse" gas concentrations could push the world's thermostat as much as 10 degrees F. higher than it was in 1990, according to a draft report from the UN International Panel on Climate Change's science working group.

Scientists are reluctant to attribute Britain's current weather problems to global warming. But some say it exemplifies the type of severe weather that could become more frequent as climate warms. Their concern is not lost on the diplomats.

"Climate change is an epic environmental challenge," says David Sandalow, US assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. "We have to deal with it for the sake of our children and grandchildren."

To begin the process of dealing with it, negotiators will walk a tightrope, says Michael Zammit Cutajar, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Delegates will try to balance the need to keep costs of compliance with the Kyoto Protocols as low as possible, while still sending their governments a pact with "environmental integrity."

The 1997 protocols look to reduce average global greenhouse-gas emissions - mainly carbon dioxide - by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels. The cuts would be made between 2008 and 2012. Yet the global average hides wide gaps in countries' individual targets. The US would cut emissions by 7 percent. Germany must cut emissions by 21 percent. New Zealand would make no cuts at all. So far, developing countries are not covered.

The rub is that as a lifeline, the Kyoto pact is more like a thread than a hawser.

"Even if Kyoto were adopted, it would only produce a small decrease in the rate of increase in CO2 in the atmosphere," says Jerry Mahlman, recently retired director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J.

If Kyoto virtually fails the environmental-integrity test, why bother?

"The essential first step toward any long-term solution is an international agreement that requires countries to begin to address greenhouse-gas emissions," says Mr. Sandalow. "We have to take the first step in order to be able to solve the problem long-term."

The definition of "long term" may be shifting. Looking at global population and energy-demand trends and a doubling of CO2 by 2100, "we're on a trajectory to make it quadruple" over the next two centuries, Dr. Mahlman continues. "South Carolina under a four-times CO2 scenario? You won't want to live there," he says, adding that no place on earth today has the combination of heat and humidity that state would have if CO2 quadrupled.

To protocol supporters, arresting such changes - at the moment based on computer models with their attendant uncertainties - means prodding countries to try "to integrate action against climate change into economic decisionmaking," Mr. Cutajar says.

These protocols add targets, timetables, deadlines, and reduction gears to the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which sets out the broad goal of throttling greenhouse-gas emissions back to 1990 levels. Yet Kyoto sidesteps nagging details on a number of issues negotiators now must confront. The most contentious include:

Emissions trading. Under this scheme, a country whose carbon emissions already fall below 1990 levels could in effect sell some of its shortfall to countries still struggling to meet reduction targets. Such a scheme could be a hard-currency boon to countries such as Russia, whose post-Soviet financial tailspin sent its carbon emissions plummeting.

The US is leading the charge for no limits on buying and selling emissions "credits." It holds that trading could significantly cut the cost of meeting targets and allow time for more energy-efficient technologies to work their way into industrial economies. The EU wants to put strict limits on trading, arguing that trading allows countries to buy their way to reaching targets, rather than take concrete actions to cut emissions.

Carbon sinks. The basic idea: Plant a tree or shrub, which uses CO2 during photosynthesis, and get credit for draining carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But the idea gets more complicated on a national and international scale, with the potential to become a bookkeeper's nightmare. Moreover, research is mixed on how effective this approach could be. The US supports the broad use of sinks by industrial countries, while the EU frowns on the idea.

The sink issue also affects another touchy point: Which low-emission projects in developing countries will developed countries be able to credit against their own reductions targets? The EU opposes using projects to plant trees, build nuclear power plants, or even more-efficient coal-fired plants in developing countries. For some of these nations, coal remains the cheapest, most abundant energy source.

Yet for all the points of contention, the State Department's Sandalow says signs are emerging that key players are coming together on the need to deal with climate change. Emissions trading is gaining ground among some developing countries that first greeted the idea with skepticism. A growing number of powerful corporations are reducing their own greenhouse-gas emissions, developing climate-friendly cars, and testing emissions-trading plans that could serve as test beds for a treaty-based approach.

Finally, key developing countries are showing an increased willingness to address climate change. Sandalow notes, for example, that India and the US have signed a bilateral agreement in which India stated its intention to increase energy efficiency by 15 percent during the next 10 years - setting "dramatic goals" to boost the use of renewable energy sources.

Whether this foundation proves strong enough for negotiators to build a finished structure on remains to be seen. An underlying theme among many industrial countries is a need for developing countries - particularly China and India - to take part in the agreement. That issue is not on the agenda. By many accounts, any treaty that fails to include them is essentially dead on arrival in the US Senate, which must ratify any treaty. Australia's government affirmed a similar position Nov. 6.

And while Kyoto's math allows the treaty to take effect without the US, any regime that fails to include a country accounting for 23 percent of annual global CO2 emissions could quickly unravel, some analysts say. Yet even if negotiators fail to weave in all the strands of Kyoto's thread in the next 14 days, some US observers remain confident that the protocols, in one form or another, will be ratified. "The protocols provide a flexible framework" for attacking the climate-change problem, says Michael Oppenheimer, chief scientist for the New York-based group Environmental Defense. "No one has proposed anything better, and the problem is not going to go away."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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