An agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions promises to change the way the world thinks about energy use.
Just as many people now see their garbage as something that costs money to throw away, they may soon have to accept that there is a price to pay for any activity that generates carbon dioxide - say, driving a car.
The price of gasoline may rise 50 cents a gallon by the year 2010; electric bills could be 50 percent higher, and inflation may rise while the economy slows, according to a new forecast.
The pact, which was near completion at press time yesterday at the global-warming conference in Kyoto, Japan, also means that nations have demonstrated an unprecedented resolve to work together to face a common environmental problem.
"I don't think there has ever been a more complex, comprehensive international negotiation," says Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, who monitored the talks. "It is not just complex, it is personal and local and affects anxieties ... about the way people ... are going to live in the future."
But for negotiators, the process has meant hard-fought compromises, and uncertainty until the end. Early Thursday morning in Kyoto, with 10 days of discussions going into overtime, there was still a chance that the deal would founder.
Even so, the talks themselves are an achievement, the culmination of a century of scientific inquiry, decades of activism, and years of growing public and political awareness about the dangers of polluting the atmosphere. Nearly 160 countries have participated in the negotiations.
It is of little surprise that a pact to prevent global warming has been so hard to conclude. Even in an era that has seen an ever-increasing amount of international cooperation - from pacts to save fisheries to regional trade blocs to last week's land-mine ban - the Kyoto deal asks a lot.
If countries agree to the Kyoto pact - a protocol to the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change - more than 30 of the world's most developed countries would enter into a binding commitment to reduce, by the period 2008 to 2012, their emissions of certain greenhouse gases, which many scientists say contribute to potentially dangerous changes in the earth's climate. Most of these countries would reduce their emissions by 6 percent compared with 1990 levels.
Pollution 'credit' to buy and sell
The deal would also establish an unprecedented scheme for countries and companies to buy and sell the rights to pollute the atmosphere. "When you create a market you generate momentum in which you can solve the problem in ways that you did not expect," says Hunter Lovins, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., a private foundation that promotes energy conservation.
As of this writing, it appeared that developing nations participating in the talks might scuttle a deal because of efforts to encourage them to reduce emissions. The leaders of these poorer countries insist that the developed nations must act first, because they can better afford the economic damage of greenhouse-gas reductions and have a historical obligation to correct a problem they initially caused.
At the same time, developing countries such as India and China are generating ever-growing amounts of greenhouse gases. China is set to surpass the United States, the world's leading emitter, early in the next century.
Others worry about a Kyoto agreement. "Energy crisis and conservation - it's a painful experience," says Fred Smith, president of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, another US public interest group. "It's impossible to have all pain and no gain."
Those associated with industries that produce large amounts of greenhouse gases - notably coal miners and electric companies that burn coal - seem certain that they will lose jobs and revenues, and have to pass on higher costs to consumers.
Will US public accept a deal?
At the same time, politicians such as Senator Lieberman and environmental activists say that public opinion will accept the price of conservation and that innovation will help to make it palatable.
The talks here also have reinforced the idea that the US is the world's indispensable nation. "This conference couldn't have happened without [President] Clinton and [Vice President Albert] Gore," says Michael Grubb, an environment specialist at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a private think tank in London.
Dr. Grubb says the key question in the decade-long process of discussing ways to halt climate change has been this: "Was the US - the world's dominant economy, the dominant resource consumer, a nation built on the assumption of no limits - was it actually prepared to go down the road of submitting themselves to internationally negotiated constraints on the emission of greenhouse gases?"
US officials insist the answer is "yes." Other countries have played important roles here - Europe has held out for more ambitious levels of reduction - but the Americans are the pioneers in creating market mechanisms to address pollution.
The 1990 Clean Air Act allowed companies to buy and sell rights to emit the pollutants that cause acid rain - credits that are now among the commodities exchanged at the Chicago Board of Trade.