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World: Hague Participants Not Optimistic About Climate Talks

As discussions continue this week in The Hague on ways to cut emissions of greenhouses gases believed to contribute to global warming, hopes of making significant headway appear to be slim. Serious disagreements still exist between the United States and Europe on what are the best strategies for reducing the emissions.

Prague, 20 Nov 2000 (RFE/RL) -- More than 180 nations are trying to turn the 1997 Kyoto protocols into a rulebook for reducing industrial emissions of gases, widely thought to be warming the earth's climate.

Under the protocols, industrial countries agreed to cut their emissions of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during a five-year period starting in 2008. To reach that goal, the United States is to reduce its gas emissions by 7 percent below 1990 levels, while for Europe the target is 8 percent and for Japan it is 6 percent. Developing countries are not immediately required to take action.

Last week, thousands of lower-level government officials descended on The Hague as preliminary talks got underway. They are being joined this week by higher-level ministers, who, it is hoped, will hammer out a deal by the end of the week. But the man chairing the conference, Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk, expressed frustration yesterday at the snail's pace of the first week of talks.

"I am frustrated with the pace of the talks of the last three years. The pace during the last week was a bit quicker. But if we would continue to negotiate at this pace we would easily reach the year 2008 with the negotiations."

Scientists say greenhouse gas concentrations are higher now than at any point in recorded time. And while there is no way yet conclusively to link the higher gas concentrations with climactic change, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that long-term changes are underway.

Seven of the 20th century's hottest years were recorded during the 1990s, with 1998 being the century's hottest year. The Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are shrinking. And since 1980, there has been an increase in both drought and deluge around the globe. For Europeans, the recent downpours and floods in Britain are only the latest pieces of evidence that all is not right with the planet's climate.

Observers say one of the main points of disagreement at the talks is U.S. insistence on counting existing forest-land as so-called "sinks" that soak up greenhouse gases.

The Kyoto agreement allows countries to use new tree plantations to count as carbon credits. But the United States -- backed by Canada, Australia, and Japan -- wants to use existing forests as well to offset commitments. The head of the U.S. negotiating team at The Hague, David Sandalow, said last week that the proposal will help Washington become a party to the Kyoto protocol. The U.S. Senate has passed a resolution making ratification of the Kyoto agreement conditional on assurances that U.S. competitiveness on world markets will not be harmed.

This proposal has put the United States at odds with the European Union, which is demanding that the relatively well-off countries reach at least half of their Kyoto gas reduction targets through action taken at home. Today, French President Jacques Chirac -- whose country holds the EU rotating presidency -- said the United States must lead in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Washington has been widely criticized for failing to take domestic action to cut fossil fuel emissions. With 4 percent of the world's population, the United States is responsible for more than 20 percent of its carbon emissions.

Instead, Washington is claiming credit for removing carbon from the atmosphere by encouraging tree growth, changing farming practices, and growing energy crops to burn in power stations. It says that by managing existing forests properly, it saves 300 metric tons of carbon a year -- about half the U.S. emissions.

The United States also wants the freedom to use so-called "flexible mechanisms," such as buying emission credits from other countries, effectively paying them for not polluting the global atmosphere so restrictions at home are less demanding. As a result, there is what Dutch minister Pronk yesterday called a "huge distance" between the United States and the EU at the climate conference.

David Viner, a researcher with the Climactic Research Unit at Britain's University of East Anglia, holds out little hope for significant success at The Hague talks, but says any step to cut greenhouse gases must be welcomed. At the same time, he is pessimistic that "sinks" or the trading of carbon credits or other market-based devices can solve the problem of global warming.

"On the large-scale issues of the long-term of climate change over the course of the next century, the rate of change we're seeing and the amount of carbon dioxide we're emitting into the atmosphere is so large that the actual forest sink issue becomes really a marginal issue. There's a lot more pressing problems that need to be addressed rather than just the questions of tinkering about carbon trading and carbon credits, the use of forests as sinks for carbon dioxides -- all this will only have a miniscule effect on the overall climate change we're likely to see."

Viner also says global awareness of the severity and immediacy of the problem must be raised if serious head way is to be made in combating global warming.

"The population of the world, everybody, needs to be aware of the issue that we are going to have to see massive cuts in the carbon dioxide emissions. The Royal Commission on pollution in the United Kingdom suggested a 60 to 70 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions over the next few decades."

Niver says that means people living in the developed world must be convinced to give up some of the creature comforts they now enjoy and alter their way of life.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.