World Airs Worries Over Pollution Cuts

Some hopes emerge among concerns as nations gather today for a round of talks on reducing greenhouse gases

The road from Rio to Kyoto passes through Bonn, but the path leading to an accord on greenhouse gases is proving to be a long one. Negotiations for a prospective "Kyoto accord" on reduction of emissions resume here today.

Some progress in atmospherics of the meeting itself, at least, has been made since the last round in March. But Richard Kinley, coordinator of the negotiations warns, "We are becoming concerned about the time that remains" before December's deadline in Kyoto, Japan, "and the extent to which the parties are still far apart."

At the United Nations environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, world leaders agreed to cut their countries' emissions of so-called greenhouse gases in order to mitigate or prevent global warming. By 2000, they are to have brought emissions down to 1990 levels.

But three years before the deadline, it is clear that few if any countries will meet this target. For instance, by 2000, emissions from the United States are expected to rise 13 percent above 1990 levels. It's become clear that more than good intentions - and the moral commitments made at Rio - is needed if emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases are really to be reduced. And so the UN convention on climate change is negotiating what is intended to be a legally binding international treaty.

It is a tremendously complex issue, says coordinator Kinley, "because it goes to the center of economic activity in countries." He notes with approval, however, that the issue of global warming received special attention lately both at the "Group of Eight" summit in Denver and the UN General Assembly special session last month.

Similarly, European environmentalists are pleased to see that the Clinton administration seems to have focused anew on the issue and is launching a campaign to inform the American public of the dangers of global warming.

Another piece of encouraging news for advocates is that the European Union has fleshed out its negotiating position: In addition to calling for a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2010, the EU is now calling for a 7.5 percent reduction by 2005. But it's not clear how the EU could or would enforce compliance by its member countries.

The US has criticized the EU proposal as unrealistic but still has no numbers and timetables in its own proposal and is not expected to have them until the next session in October. As a result, the negotiating situation is in a "deadlock," as an EU official puts it, "because you can't negotiate if your partner won't put a clear position on the table."

Similarly, the Japanese government is too divided internally to have a clear position of its own. "It's not much of a party if the host doesn't dance," says Andrew Kerr, coordinator of the climate change campaign for the environmental group Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Energy-industry groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition, based in Washington, remain skeptical that research really shows that immediate action is needed. GCC favors waiting until new technologies become available to reduce emissions much more cheaply than is now possible. Like the US, the group is adamant that the accord must include emissions-reduction requirements for developing countries as well as industrialized states.

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