Hot climate issue: Who pays?

In their second week, negotiators at a conference in the Netherlands push hard political bargains.

For US delegates to the United Nations climate talks here, Thanksgiving will have to wait.

Indeed, over the next five days, the heat could become sufficiently intense that negotiators may envy the birds basting in ovens back home.

This week, top-level ministers from more than 160 countries take the reins from their technical teams, who have been working to fill in the outlines of a three-year-old pact to combat global warming. The 1997 Kyoto Protocols call on industrial countries to cut their emissions of heat-trapping gases - mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) - by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels.

The new arrivals are charged with driving the hard political bargains needed to seal an agreement by Friday that they can take to their legislatures for approval. In turn, many here hope to see the protocols take force by 2002, the 10th anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, which initiated the process that led to this meeting.

For the protocols to take effect, 55 countries must ratify them. Of those, ratifiers must include industrial countries whose combined emissions represent 55 percent of all industrial-country emissions. Although 84 countries have signed the Kyoto Protocols and 30 have ratified it, no industrial country has ratified the treaty.

During the past week, talks achieved what conference president Jan Pronk, Netherlands' minister of housing, spatial planning, and the environment, calls "a narrowing of differences."

"We've seen some good progress" on several technical issues, agrees David Sandalow, US assistant secretary of state for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. These include movement toward common standards for measuring and monitoring greenhouse-gas emissions and closing gaps on how to structure a panel that would oversee compliance with the protocols.

"There was real agreement on the need to ... find ways to be more responsive to the needs of less-developed countries," adds David Hale, an official with the US Agency for International Development and one of the negotiators.

"I don't want to overstate the progress in any of those areas" continues Mr. Sandalow, who headed the US delegation during its first week here. "Important differences remain. But there have been very useful discussions."

Yet if gaps have narrowed on some issues, they remain wide on others. One of the rifts involves the question of how best to achieve Kyoto's emissions targets. The European Union and a number of developing countries argue that nations should reach their targets by cutting emissions at home.

Countries such as the US, Japan, and Canada counter that nations should be free to use "flexible" approaches, such as getting credit for the carbon dioxide that forests, farms, and grasslands absorb. Or for helping developing countries cut emissions as they grow. Or trading emissions - in effect buying "clean air" from countries whose emissions already fall below 1990 levels. The protocols permit these approaches, but countries are divided over how extensively to use them. The EU wants limits; the US does not.

Even before the ministers arrived, some countries appeared to be jostling for the political high ground. On Friday, Britain's environment minister announced that his country was undertaking what was billed as the world's most comprehensive program to cut emissions. Under the plan, by 2010 Britain would slash greenhouse-gas emissions to a level 23 percent lower than 1990 emissions. Carbon-dioxide emissions would fall 19 percent. High oil prices would drive some of the reductions, he said. But the plan also relies on a broad package of fuel excise taxes, government grants to industry and low-income homeowners to improve energy efficiency, and other approaches.

Britain's plan mirrors the EU's stand on how to meet Kyoto targets: by directly cutting emissions at home to reach the lion's share of its targets. This issue is particularly thorny because it cuts across several of the protocols' provisions - and because it affects the cost of putting the protocols into practice.

The EU wants to limit the use of greenery as carbon "sinks" because the Continent doesn't have the vast reaches of farmland or forests the US, Canada, and Australia do, some analysts say. European businesses would have a harder time competing with US counterparts on global markets if US businesses were less burdened by emissions regulations and taxes that Eurobusinesses face.

The US, on the other hand, must muster 67 votes in the Senate to ratify an agreement - a prospect that some feel is unlikely regardless of who becomes the next president. The treaty's financial impact is one of two tests the Senate has pledged to apply. Thus the Clinton administration has an interest in trying to keep costs of compliance as low as possible. Relying on existing trees to soak up CO2 is one way to do that. "Can we get an agreement? In my view it's possible," says Mr. Pronk, the conference president. "For me, the most important things are environmental credibility, sticking to the target," and seeing that "the whole family stays together."

Family unity could be tough to maintain. By Friday, China and 77 developing countries threatened to walk out because they objected to the way Pronk organized the negotiations for this week. The real purpose, however, may have been to signal displeasure with the way developing-country concerns are being ignored by industrial countries, notes Kalee Kreider, the global-warming campaign director for the National Environmental Trust, a Washington-based group. Those concerns also have to do with money: inadequate contributions to a fund set up to help developing nations adapt to climate change. In addition, she says, developing countries are frustrated that developed countries haven't cut emissions as promised under the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change, which is in force and which the US has ratified.

She says that in the end, China and the G-77 countries are unlikely to leave; they also have a stake in working to solve the climate-change problem. But "developing countries only have a certain set of tools in their toolbox, and they're limited," she says. "I think we're going to go through some hard days of negotiation this week."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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