Global-warming treaty: last gasp?

This week Europe will push its plan to cut industrial gases. But US, Canada, and other nations are balking.

It's the most ambitious environmental treaty ever written. But can it be salvaged - or should it be - without the US as a partner?

These are the basic questions confronting negotiators from some 180 countries this week as they gather here to finish drafting the rules for the Kyoto Protocol. The global pact aims to cut the output of industrial gases, which many scientists say are raising the Earth's thermostat.

The Bush administration calls the treaty "fatally flawed," but on Friday it pledged to spend a total of $145 million on climate research and on technology to curb carbon-dioxide emissions. Still, most European leaders see Kyoto as the best hope for blunting the potentially devastating effects of growing "greenhouse gas" emissions. They are likely to make this a key issue in Italy later this week when President Bush arrives for another summit, the Group of Eight meeting of leading industrial nations.

The climate-treaty summit "is taking place under extraordinary conditions," says Kevin Baumert, a climate-change specialist at the World Resources Institute in Washington. "The US is coming to the meeting without any policy at all, except its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol."

The Protocol seeks to cut CO2 emissions worldwide by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels over a four-year period beginning in 2008. Talks on the treaty's details collapsed last November, after the United States and the European Union failed to agree on how broadly a key compliance approach could be used.

Now talks are set to resume - informally today and formally on Thursday on rules governing what most scientists see as the human activities behind the rise in carbon dioxide.

US to fund better models

Some of the Bush administration response to the Kyoto approach was outlined Friday in a list of initiatives emerging from Bush's Cabinet-level advisory group on climate change. These include a $120 million effort by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to study key aspects of climate change and to spur improvements in climate models, which are used to predict global warming trends. The intent is to reduce uncertainties a National Academy of Science panel pinpointed for the administration in a recent review.

For example, the panel noted that it is unclear how efficiently the oceans and land-based ecosystems soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide. NASA is slated to spend some $50 million over the next three years on remote-sensing research that should help close that knowledge gap.

In addition, the White House initiatives include efforts to work with governments and nongovernment organizations to prevent the destruction of tropical forests, and to work with energy companies to develop technologies that could capture carbon from fossil fuels and sequester carbon dioxide underground.

Yet these approaches are likely to do little to offset what Mr. Baumert expects to be a chorus of "stinging criticism" of the administration's policy here. Disappointment runs deep that the US would walk away from a treaty it helped shape. The move has appeared to strengthen the resolve among other countries, especially key members of the EU, to conclude negotiations and ratify the agreement without the US.

"We could end up with quite a comprehensive set of rules," says Michael Grubb, professor of climate change and energy policy at Imperial College in London. Since last fall, he says, the EU's position has shifted "a long way" on how extensively countries could take credit for the amount of CO2 their forests and farmlands soak up - so-called carbon sinks. Last fall's talks foundered on this issue.

"The remaining differences are relatively easy to bridge," Dr. Grubb says. "I see no reason why we can't end up with a package."

Narrowing this gap has taken on added significance since Mr. Bush announced his opposition to the protocol, which he described as harmful to the US economy.

Liberal allowances for carbon sinks also are vital to Japan, now seen as a linchpin to the pact's prospects for entering force in the absence of US action. To take effect, 55 nations must ratify the protocol, and some combination of those countries must account for 55 percent of industrial-nations emissions. Analysts say that could be achieved if the EU, Japan, and Russia ratify the accord.

For its part, Japanese leaders have engaged in "constructive ambiguity" when outlining their position in the run-up to this week's talks, says Kalee Krieder, director of global warming and energy programs for the National Environmental Trust in Washington.

The protocols were negotiated in Japan, giving the country a large stake in a successful conclusion to the talks. Yet Ms. Krieder also notes that the country is divided over the protocol, which has strong public support but is strongly opposed by key Japanese industries. Moreover, Japanese leaders are uncertain about whether to part company with the US. Finally, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's coalition government faces a key test of its grip on power in parliamentary elections scheduled for later this month.

Still, on Friday a spokesman for the prime minister noted that while Japan sees US participation in the protocol as "extremely important," the country does not see US participation as "a condition for ratification." Japan's goal, he added, is to ratify the protocol by 2002.

Although he acknowledges that significant progress - and even completion of the protocol's implementation rules - is possible, Imperial College's Dr. Grubb also notes that potential stumbling blocks remain.

Aid to developing nations

One sticking point appears to be a fresh proposal by Dutch environment minister Jan Pronk, who is chairing the negotiating session here, regarding aid to developing countries. He holds that industrial countries should agree here to place a combined $1 billion a year through 2005 into two funds designed to help developing countries cope with the effects of climate change. Japan and the US oppose the idea. Japan argues that the amount is too much, unjustified, and both countries hold that, in any case, such funds should total $1 billion by 2005.

Despite the high priority many place on completing a deal here, others argue that it may be enough to strike the necessary broad deals on potential show-stoppers, then finish up at the next round of talks, scheduled for this fall in Marrakesh.

"If negotiators can strike a political deal now in headline issues" such as sinks, carbon trading, and other mechanisms, "then cross the Ts and dot the Is" at Marrakesh, "that would represent a huge success," says the World Resources Institute's Baumert.

Others, however, would like to see the job finished here. "It would be a great waste to leave the rule book for this massive undertaking unfinished when we have come so far," says Michael Zammit Cutajar, the UN's top climate-change official.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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