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World: Most Industrial Nations Accept Kyoto Protocol

  • Alexandra Poolos

After 48 hours of marathon talks among negotiators from 178 nations, participants in the Bonn conference on climate control hammered out a compromise agreement yesterday on a treaty that for the first time would formally require industrialized countries to cut emissions of gases linked to global warming. The United States held to its resistance to the Kyoto Protocol, and in doing so was left on the sidelines. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos has the story.

Prague, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Following an all-night bargaining session (22 July), negotiators at the world conference on climate change in Bonn cheered yesterday when a compromise was struck between Japan and the European Union that finally resolved differences over how to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The United States was alone among major nations opposing the compromise.

Belgian Deputy Environment and Energy Minister Olivier Deleuze, whose country currently holds the presidency of the European Union, said the decision was a breakthrough for Europe.

"Despite the great difficulties of the problem, despite that we didn't agree one week ago about how to handle it, we have a conclusive end to this marathon. The second point is that of course, it is also very good for Europe."

The rescue of the Kyoto treaty, which seemed close to death after U.S. President George W. Bush renounced it in March, reflects the determination of many countries to act swiftly in curbing greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the earth's atmosphere. Some scientists believe the earth's rising temperatures could eventually melt polar ice caps, cause sea levels to rise and increase devastation from floods and hurricanes.

The agreement by 178 countries was largely the product of give-and-take involving Japan, Australia, Canada, and the EU. Japan's role was crucial because it has the world's largest economy after the United States, and its opposition would have killed any accord.

But concessions to Japan created a significantly softened version of the Kyoto Protocol. Under the compromise, nations with the greatest emissions are allowed to achieve their reductions with greater flexibility. For example, Japan won a provision to receive credits for reducing emissions by protecting forests that absorb carbon dioxide.

Still, the agreement is a binding one that calls for 38 nations to reduce their emissions by 2012 or face even tougher standards. The EU's Deleuze said that there were many things to criticize in the final agreement, but that he prefers an "imperfect agreement that is living" than a perfect agreement that does not exist.

Ian Willmore, a spokesman for the Friends of the Earth -- a non-governmental environmental organization based in Britain -- attended the Bonn talks to campaign for the Kyoto Protocol. Willmore says the decision to implement Kyoto was a major step forward for climate control.

"It's an important step forward because this is the first-ever major international agreement requiring practical action to cut the emissions that cause greenhouse gases and in turn climate change. Of course, the agreement has been diluted from its original form when it was signed in Kyoto in 1997, and since then the Americans have reneged on the agreement. So there are some serious flaws with it, but nonetheless it is a very important step forward."

Negotiators found common ground on several key issues. The compromise includes enforcement of legally binding sanctions against nations that violate the treaty. It allows countries to count carbon-absorbing forests and farmlands toward their targets for cutting emissions -- a key concession to Japan and Russia. And it establishes a system that allows nations which exceed goals for reducing emissions to "sell" credits to nations that fail to meet the goals.

The Kyoto treaty, which seeks to reduce worldwide greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent, will come into force once it has been ratified by nations responsible for 55 percent of the emissions.

At the summit of the seven leading industrial nations plus Russia last weekend in Genoa, Italy, President Bush reiterated his belief that the Kyoto Protocol would harm the U.S. economy. He said the United States will make known its own ideas about reducing global warming in coming months.

Environmentalist Willmore says that Bush's economic argument against Kyoto is unfounded. He speculates that the real reason Bush has rejected the agreement is that it would hurt the coal and oil industries, which were major financial contributors to his election campaign.

"In fact, the economic costs to the United States of implementing the Kyoto Protocol would be remarkably low, according to all the best evidence. This is because the United States is the least energy-efficient economy on earth and has a great deal of capacity to improve its energy efficiency and to take other measures to control greenhouse gas emissions. Also, you have to remember that there is an enormous economic cost to not acting on climate change because of the consequent damage to the environment. And there's also a benefit because of the creation of new markets in being more energy efficient."

Willmore says that U.S. will eventually have to accept the Kyoto Protocol.

"Well, it's true that the United States produces about a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. So the fact that it's not participating is extremely damaging to the environment. In the end, the U.S. will need to take part in the process to control the emissions of greenhouse gases. Even George Bush, who reneged on the Kyoto deal, has accepted that that is the case. So there will need to be a great deal of work to get the U.S. back in the process at some point in the future."

Willmore says the Bush administration will suffer great political damage for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol. He says that U.S. citizens are already feeling the effects of climate change. He believes that, plus international criticism, will increase political pressure on the administration to more actively combat greenhouse gas emissions.

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