Despite stalemate at Hague, talks no futile exercise

Climate talks wrapped up on Saturday without an agreement. But momentum builds for individual action.

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They came, they talked, and they walked off without a document in their pockets.

On Saturday, after 13 days of grueling talks, delegates to United Nations climate talks failed to complete work on rules for implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, which are designed to combat human-induced climate change. The failure raises a significant bump in the road - but not an insurmountable one, analysts here say. They hope to resume where they left off in Bonn, Germany, next May.

Several countries, led by the United States, failed to bridge an ever-narrowing gap with the European Union over a package of three "crunch" issues. When it became clear the final gap was too wide to span, conference president Jan Pronk, the Netherlands' environment minister, announced negotiations would be suspended. "Personally, I am very disappointed," he said. "We have been watched by the outside world. They, too, will be extremely disappointed."

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The Kyoto Protocols require that industrial countries cut greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of 5.2 percent between 2008 and 2012. Many climate researchers hold that these gases - mainly carbon dioxide - are responsible for a significant increase in global average temperatures since the mid-1800s, and especially during the latter half of this century. Left unchecked, rising carbon-dioxide levels could push the earth's thermostat up by as much as 10 degrees F. by 2100, according to a new assessment by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's science working group.

Developing countries chastised developed nations for failing to meet their responsibilities to stop polluting. Some environmental groups blamed the deadlock on US negotiators, who countered that they shifted position significantly to try to meet EU concerns, and were willing to go further.

Yet the difficulty of trying to reach an agreement should come as no surprise, says Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, a Washington-based environmental group. "You're trying to change the energy economy of the planet," he says. "No one has ever undertaken a treaty that complicated."

At issue were three elements: claiming credit for the use of forests, cropland and rangeland as "sinks" for carbon dioxide; use of emissions trading, which would allow countries that beat emissions targets to sell their "excess" clean air to nations having a tough time meeting targets; and stiff penalties for countries that fail to meet their goals. Many EU countries don't realize that the US needs sinks and emissions trading to build political coalitions within its corporate sector that will weaken the impact oil, gas, and coal industries have on the Senate, which must ratify any treaty, adds Mr. Clapp. Come ratification time, sinks can attract farm- and timber-state votes, while emissions trading draws in much of the rest of private industry.

Further progress toward giving the Kyoto Protocols teeth awaits more negotiations. But it's increasingly clear that in the US - the world's largest source of human-based carbon-dioxide emissions - public, private, and political sentiment appears to be shifting. Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho - long a global-warming skeptic - noted here that his views were shifting toward accepting the fact of human-induced climate change due to what he sees as increasingly compelling scientific evidence. And Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts notes that the US has signed treaties in the past, then failed to ratify them. Yet, he says, the treaties still affected US policy. Thus, even if the US fails to ratify the Kyoto Protocols, "this is not a Pyrrhic exercise."

Bills introduced in the House and Senate target power plants that burn fossil fuels, and aim to reduce emissions of four pollutants, two of which - carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide - are greenhouse gases.

Other approaches, say congressional sources observing here at The Hague, could include stronger agricultural conservation incentives in the 2002 farm bill. Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas and Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa have offered bills to boost the use of no-till farming, buffer strips of vegetation along rivers and streams, and biomass production to help soils soak up more CO2.

In addition to sequestering CO2, these practices could reduce the amount of fertilizer-based nitrogen leaving the land. Scientists in India have found that waters off India's west coast release vast amounts of nitrous oxides during the late summer and autumn. (Pound for pound, nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) The researchers, whose work was published in the Nov. 16 issue of Nature, concluded that the source was farm runoff. Hermann Bange, with the Max Plank Institute for Chemistry in Germany, calculates that if the research is correct, the phenomenon could contribute as much as 21 percent of nitrous-oxide emissions from oceans.

While these changes are significant, they don't replace a strong set of protocols. "If we have to reduce emissions by 50 or 60 percent over the long run, that needs a global effort," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Washington. "That effort has to start somewhere, and the Kyoto Protocols are better than no start at all."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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