'Modest' but 'Solid' Draft Gives Hope For Last-Minute Deal on Climate

Global-Warming Drama

Like any other activity that involves a deadline, concluding international agreements is a tense business. The endgame of the Kyoto global warming conference has been no exception.

On Dec. 9, the official responsible for drafting the protocol that 160 nations are trying to conclude here released a text that he said could lead to a "modest achievement" - a plan for developed countries to reduce their emission of three "greenhouse" gases by 5 percent, from 1990 levels, during the period 2006 to 2010.

But the top American negotiator, Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, then said that key parties still had "far to go" before the finish of the conference Dec. 10. And environmental activists wasted no time in criticizing the draft for its loopholes and lack of teeth.

As of this writing, it was still possible that negotiators would produce a substantive agreement. The release of the draft accord by Argentine diplomat Raul Estrada, the official charged with putting the document together, was variously seen as a sign of progress - or possibly an attempt to shame countries into adopting an agreement amid increasingly tense discussions.

The countries meeting in Kyoto have been trying to agree on a binding formula for the reduction of carbon dioxide and other gases that scientists say may contribute to global warming. The benchmark has been the level of greenhouse gas emitted in 1990, the year the United Nations began to grapple in earnest with climate change.

The draft spells out different commitments for different countries: The United States would have to reduce its emissions by 5 percent, Japan by 4.5 percent, and the European Union countries by 8 percent. Some countries have argued for this differentiation on the grounds of different circumstances: Britain and Germany, for instance, already have abandoned coal and other industries that produce large amounts of greenhouse gases, giving them a head start.

The number for the US represents a larger reduction than the US has said it would agree to. The formula also excludes three greenhouse gases that Washington insists be part of the agreement. Mr. Eizenstat calls the exclusion of these gases from the agreement "fundamentally and environmentally unsound."

On the other hand, one Japanese official involved in the negotiations called Ambassador Estrada's draft "solid," though he conceded it was more of a politically viable solution than an environmentally sound one.

Annie Petsonk, a lawyer with the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group, notes that the draft puts off the adoption of any specific penalties for countries that do not meet their commitments. That, she says, makes it a "nonbinding" document.

The draft also hedges on some issues of apparently crucial significance. It does not say how or when developing countries would be required to reduce their emissions. Although the US, with 4 percent of the world's population, now produces a quarter of man-made greenhouse gases, these emission levels will soon be surpassed by booming China.

The US Senate, which must ratify any agreement produced here, insists on a plan for including developing countries in a binding reduction plan. But the leaders of these poorer countries counter that the developed nations must act first, because they can better afford the economic pain of greenhouse-gas reductions and have a historical obligation to begin correcting a problem they initially caused.

In the midst of this fractious finish, some observers have tried to keep the long view in focus.

Producing an agreement on greenhouse-gas reductions involves the complexity and sensitivity of the hard-fought arms-control agreements of the cold war.

"What makes this more important and more difficult," says Robert Musil, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a Washington-based advocacy group, "is that everyone has emissions. Not everyone had bombs."

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