Global climate treaty moves ahead, without US

The United States watches as Europe and Japan shape a global climate treaty.

In the waning moments of the Kyoto meeting yesterday morning, US special negotiator Mark Hambley walked slowly back and forth across the front of the cavernous auditorium at the Hotel Maritim. It was as if he were not quite sure where he belonged.

Delegates from 180 nations had just pulled two all-nighters breathing new life into the most ambitious global environmental treaty ever written, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. At a similar gathering last November, Ambassador Hambley was deeply involved in the negotiations.

But as the deal was cinched, Hambley idly watched as the delegates from Japan and Europe became the center of a media scrum of bright lights, cameras, and tape recorders.

It was a telling moment.

It took an 11th hour nod from Japan's prime minister to salvage an accord for a sweeping new set of rules governing how nations will try to curb industrial gases. This outcome, say analysts, signals a greater readiness by the rest of the world to follow the diplomatic lead of countries or blocs other than the United States, which opted out of the pact earlier this year.

In the post cold-war world, "the rest of the world doesn't need the US in quite the same way," says John Gummer, a conservative member of Britain's Parliament and environment secretary under former Prime Minister John Major. In the absence of cold-war tensions, "countries enjoy a greater freedom of action, and the growth of power in the European Union extends that," he says.

The EU is widely credited here with taking the lead in reaching compromise agreements on a range of contentious issues surrounding implementation rules for the protocol. The four-year-old pact is designed to curb industrial emissions of carbon dioxide. Many scientists say they are increasingly confident that a buildup of heat-trapping gases - mainly CO2 - from human activity is warming earth's climate.

A crucial test of the world's readiness to leave the US on its own - at least on some issues - comes with efforts to ratify the protocol. For the treaty to take effect, 55 countries must ratify it. Of those, enough industrial countries must ratify to account for 55 percent of industrial-country emissions. If it does take effect, over the long term the protocol and its successors are expected to have a profound impact on the use of fossil fuels, which give off CO2 when they are burned.

By the end of the protocol's first compliance period in 2012, industrial countries must cut their emissions an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels.

The protocol builds on the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That treaty, which the US ratified in 1993, bid industrial countries to reduce their emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000 - a target countries never reached, because the convention lacked teeth. The protocol was an attempt to take the principles embraced in the convention and weave them into a pact with binding targets, timetables, and acceptable mechanisms for achieving them.

So far, 36 countries - all but one are developing countries - have ratified the document.

When President Bush withdrew from the protocol in March, "he raised one big issue in the minds of other heads of state. However big and powerful, the US can't be allowed to dictate how things will go in the world," says Michael Grubb, professor of energy and economics at Imperial College in London.

The reaction Bush provoked was based on more than a trans-Atlantic difference in political culture or class pedigree, he continues. "The world had to demonstrate that Bush is only president of the United States, he is not president of the world. The will to reach an agreement here is mind-boggling."

In the talks' final hours, closure hinged on reaching a compromise between the European Union, Japan, and Russia over key elements of the protocol's compliance section, analysts here say. These included cash penalties, the formula for selecting members of a compliance board, and an extra boost in later emissions targets for a country that fails to meet its 2008-2012 target.

The cash penalties, in particular, raise constitutional concerns in some of the objecting countries. Japan's resistance to the provision was seen, in part, as a nod to the US, which cites constitutional reasons for opposing mandatory financial penalties.

Though President Bush has withdrawn the US from the protocol, many countries here express an interest in seeing the country return to the Kyoto fold. Japan, analysts say, is trying to encourage that by objecting to provisions the US finds troubling.

By 6:00 a.m. Bonn time Monday, word emerged that Japanese Prime Minister Kiozumi had instructed his negotiating team to strike a deal. Although four hours more of hard bargaining would remain, many credit Mr. Kiozumi's intervention as the final turning point in these talks.

The pact clearly is a compromise measure, negotiators say.

"But we would prefer an imperfect treaty that is living than a perfect treaty that does not exist," notes Olivier Deleuze, Belgium's cabinet secretary for energy and sustainable development.

For example, provisions that allow countries to meet their emissions-reduction targets by taking credit for the carbon dioxide their forests and farmlands soak up - so-called sinks - grew more generous as time passed. The effect is to more than halve the overall emission reduction from 5.2 percent to 1.8 percent. In addition, the protocol would establish a means of buying and selling carbon "credits" internationally as another means of achieving targets.

The presence of such "market mechanisms" is one indication that the Kyoto Protocol is "very much a conservative treaty," says Britain's Mr. Gummer. "We on the right in Europe feel that Mr. Bush has let us down."

That sense of betrayal could cast doubt on the Bush administration's reliability as a negotiating partner, Gummer continues. He also sees serious economic aftershocks emerging from Bush's decision.

Citing the US loss of leadership in the mobile telecommunications market to Europe, he notes that the same thing could happen in energy-efficient technologies, as the rest of the world accelerates development of these technologies under the impetus of the protocol's emissions-reduction regime.

Ironically, if President Bush's decision to withdraw from the protocol spurred the rest of the world to press ahead, it appears to be having the same affect on the US Congress. Several bills have been introduced on both sides of the aisle that adopt Kyoto-type mechanisms to deal with climate-related pollution issues.

According to a tally conducted by the Pew Foundation, at least 15 bills and resolutions are pending that in one way or another would help reduce US carbon emissions.

The irony, says Joseph Goffman, senior attorney with Environmental Defense, a Washington-based environmental group, is that these measures embody the kind of approaches the US would need to adopt as enabling legislation if it were to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. "To a very large extent, these become 'enabling' legislation, consistent with a Kyoto Protocol compliance timetable," he says. "I don't want to imply that this is the sponsors' motives. But the most valuable thing our policymakers can do for us is to keep our options open, even if you're a protocol skeptic."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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