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World: Industry 'Spins' Its Way to Environmental Meeting

Prague, 7 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - With one month to go before a United Nations conference in Kyoto is due to adopt a Convention on Global Change, industrialized nations are trying to put a positive "spin" (that is, interpretation) on their role in protecting the environment. They're doing so despite a recent onslaught of bad news about global deterioration.

Last week, international negotiators left a global warming conference in Bonn without an agreement on how to combat the growing phenomenon. The conference, which was a warm-up for the summit in Kyoto, left largely unresolved key issues such as how to reduce gas emissions. But before delegates from 170 nations converge on Japan, many countries and their industries are taking the opportunity to publicize what's right about environmental reform in their countries.

The U.S. nuclear power industry has recently marketed itself as an unlikely solution to global warming and air pollution. Nuclear power executives told delegates in Bonn that nuclear energy offsets so-called greenhouse gases --carbon and other gases that trap the sun's energy and thereby warm the earth. Maureen Koetz, assistant to the president of the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), an industry lobby, called nuclear energy a "ready solution" for meeting future demands for electricity.

"In the United States, since 1973, nuclear energy has done more to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than any form of electricity generation," said Koetz.

Washington has come under fire recently for adopting a passive stance in its role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. is the world's biggest carbon emitter. In the past two years, levels of carbon emissions in the U.S. have risen by 3.4 percent. The NEI says that nuclear power plants reduced carbon emissions by 147 metric tons in 1996.

But critics argue that nuclear power plants damage the environment just as much as oil- and coal-burning plants do. They say that radioactive waste is as damaging as carbon dioxide emissions. And the U.S. government's Energy Department says that nuclear power will play less of a role in the world environment in coming years because of expiring nuclear reactors.

Top automotive companies are also following the environmentally friendly trend by publicizing alternatives to smog-producing vehicles. In the past few weeks, Japan's Honda Motor Corporation Ltd. and the U.S.' General Motors (GM) have both promoted alternative propulsion technologies to help ease global warming. Honda executives said that they have developed a super-clean gasoline engine that produces exhaust sometimes cleaner than the air it breathes in.

The Japanese Toyota Corporation recently announced that it will soon sell a hybrid electric car that would use a small gasoline engine to recharge the battery. And GM said recently that it will introduce new propulsion technologies at Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January. But many of the new technologies are still in the laboratory stage, and most all of them do not have a set introduction date.

Some Central and East European nations are making headway in improving their long-neglected environments. Bulgaria and Poland have set up debt-reduction systems linked to ecological care. In the case of Poland, the U.S. and French governments, among others, have agreed to decrease Poland's international debt by $90 million if the money is used for improving the environment. Poland is using what it has learned from the program to advise the Czech Republic, Estonia, Russia and other nations.

Late last year, PAKTO, a Warsaw-based Polish-American consulting firm, began matching up Polish companies in need of a clean-up with U.S. companies that had the technology to do the job. PAKTO helped find financing for the job, and the result has been positive. Poland now has strict environmental standards and stricter fines for environmental violations.

But some Polish critics say the standards and steep fines have caused several factories to close. Others question the alliance between the U.S. and Poland through PAKTO, more than half of which is owned by two subsidiaries of Warsaw's National Fund for Envronmental Protection. They say the government fund should not be allied with a Connectcitut-based private company that owns the rest of PATKO.