Washington, 9 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As delegates from 180 nations opened a two-week conference in Buenos Aires on global climate change, even those participating in negotiations doubt the chances of ever reaching a clear agreement on the politics, economics and science of global warming.
The delegates are continuing negotiations on an agreement made at last December's Kyoto, Japan meeting of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Critics of the Kyoto Protocol say it and the discussions in Buenos Aires exaggerate the threat of global warming and will unfairly punish the economies of industrialized nations.
The Kyoto summit produced a protocol to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that some believe contribute to global warming within the next ten to 15 years.
Global warming refers to the long-term rise in average temperature of the Earth. Many scientists believe man-made pollution contributes to global warming by producing gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and raise the planet's surface temperature.
The United States is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. It produces 23 percent of the world's share. China is second with 14 percent, and Russia is third largest.
There are several issues being discussed in Buenos Aires. Two are particularly contentious.
One is an emissions trading plan. Sometimes called "hot air trading," it lets highly industrialized countries buy surplus emissions credits from less developed countries that produce fewer greenhouse gases than their limit allows.
Industrialized countries that exceed their emissions limits can buy the so-called unused emissions credits from the less developed nations. The money could then be used to invest in environmentally sound development.
Some countries, including the United States, Japan, and Russia want unlimited emissions trading. The European Union, however, has argued that emissions trading without fixed limits allows richer countries to avoid reducing their own greenhouse gases by buying credits off of poorer countries. Russia and Ukraine have also been criticized for overestimating their future greenhouse gas outputs in the hope that Japan and the United States would buy their emissions credits.
Another item being discussed is the role developing countries will play in reducing their emissions. While many countries have agreed to reduce emissions to below 1990 levels, developing nations did not agree to similar commitments.
Even during last week's discussions, the G77 (correct) group of developing countries rejected a proposal to voluntarily agree to cut their emissions by specific percentages.
China has also refused to reduce emissions, saying it was unfair that already highly developed countries can curb China's industrial growth.
Over the next 20 years, 75 percent of the emissions produced will come from exempt countries.
Mike Buckner, research director for the United Mine Workers of America, said the losses caused by the Kyoto protocol outweigh any environmental gains.
He said: "Even if we get the use of emissions trading and some of the other flexible mechanisms they are contemplating in the protocol this is likely to be very costly. It's going to raise energy costs. It may cost us as much as a million jobs in the American economy. It could cost as much as over a 100,000 million dollars a year in lost gross domestic product."
Karen Kerrigan, head of the Small Business Survival Committee, a U.S.-based non-profit business advocacy group, said that there was no need for the United States to ratify the treaty because it was already taking steps to reduce emissions.
She said: "American business is taking a leadership role in terms of becoming more energy efficient, in terms of developing technologies that are environmentally friendly. And we don't need the stick of a UN treaty to beat us over the head in terms of forcing us into this leadership role."
Environmental groups concerned with global warming doubt the usefulness of the Buenos Aires conference. They say the holes in the Kyoto Protocol are beginning to seem more substantial than the agreement itself. Christopher Flavin, vice president of Worldwatch Institute, a non-profit environmental research organization, said: "The number of new very complicated issues that were added to the protocol within the last six months before it was signed have created a level of negotiating complexity that I fear has got us to the point where this protocol is in real danger."
The United States has been particularly hesitant about the global warming accord. The U.S. Congress has pledged to block any global warming treaty if it harms the U.S. economy and does not include developing nations.
But, the budget recently passed by Congress gave 1,000 million dollars to clean energy research and tax credits for energy efficient technology. Although President Bill Clinton had originally requested 6,300 million dollars in funds, the amount allocated is a 25 percent increase from the last budget.
Al Gore, U.S. vice president, said there is a growing dedication to solving the problem of global warming. At a global warming press conference last month, he said "slowly but steadily, an impressive consensus is growing among business leaders, environmental leaders, and governmental leaders that meeting the challenge of climate change is not only essential and is not only good for our environment, it's good for our economy too."
The Kyoto Protocol has been signed by over 38 countries, but only Fiji has ratified it. In order for the reduction targets to be legally binding, the countries responsible for at least 55 percent of industrialized world emissions in 1990 must have their governments ratify the accord.