As Americans debate butterfly ballots this week, the rest of the world is debating trees.
More than 160 nations are meeting at The Hague to set final rules for reducing greenhouse gases in hopes that global warming can be slowed. Reaching an agreement won't be easy.
The United States insists that it be allowed to partially skirt an emission-reduction target, set for 2012, by investing in forests that absorb carbon dioxide. (See story on page 1.)
This idea of planting or saving trees to act as "carbon sinks" already has some standing. Last week, the US made an agreement with 14 Latin American nations to do such a marketplace swap: The US would earn "credits" against reducing emissions by supporting projects that preserve or plant forests in those countries. It's a win-win deal for both sides.
The US also wants to be able to earn credits by investing in clean energy technologies that reduce emissions in other countries.
Both these plans are cheaper ways for the US to help meet the international goal of reducing overall greenhouse gases.
The European Union, however, doesn't want to give the US unlimited flexibility in "emissions trading" and thus avoid the hard task of actually reducing its pollution from fossil fuels. Forests don't last forever, the EU argues, and monitoring such projects would be difficult.
As the world's leading air polluter, the US can't be excluded from any final agreement that implements the emission targets set at the historic Kyoto meeting in 1997.
Yet, to meet its target of a 7 percent cut on its 1990 emission levels, the US would need to take radical and urgent steps, such as higher fuel taxes and massive investments in clean energy. Given the political stalemate in Washington, that's unlikely to happen.
The world needs some agreement on curbing greenhouse gases as a precautionary step in case the global warming trend continues and it becomes clear to everyone that the trend has human causes.
The innovative "carbon market" approach of the US, combined with more investment in clean energy technologies, has more merit than the strict EU approach - if it plugs any loopholes for dubious emission credits. Some version of the US path would be less disruptive to the global economy, and might even boost it.
Still, both sides need to compromise if an agreement is to be made at all to deal with a problem facing all of humanity.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society