Exhausted and bitterly divided delegates to the U.N. climate summit reached a historic accord today, agreeing to substantial cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases among industrialized countries but leaving until next year the contentious issue of whether and how the world’s poorer nations would participate.
Capping a chaotic 48 hours of nearly nonstop negotiations, delegates from 159 countries worked well into this morning on their way to adopting a treaty that commits the world’s developed countries to unprecedented, binding limits on emissions of pollutants that scientists say are causing a potentially disastrous warming of the Earth’s climate.
The Kyoto Protocol, if ratified, will require wealthy nations from North America to Europe to Japan to reduce emissions by 6 percent to 8 percent below their 1990 levels by 2012. The accord would spur dramatic changes in fossil-fuel dependent Western countries in what almost certainly would be the most ambitious and most controversial global environmental undertaking in history.
Under the proposal, the United States would cut its emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels, significantly deeper than the original U.S. proposal, which was to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels. Europe will cut 8 percent, less than the 15 percent it originally had called for. Japan would cut 6 percent as part of the compromise hammered out by delegates.
“This is a modest but significant step forward in what will be a long-term battle to protect the Earth’s climate system,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent environmental advocacy group. “The alternative - collapse and gridlock - would have been a disaster.”
Reaction to the pact among environmentalists was generally positive - but mixed. The Sierra Club called it a “narrow” victory. Greenpeace spokesman Kalee Kreider said it “means we managed to keep the oil industry from completely derailing the negotiations.” But the World Wildlife Fund blasted the agreement as “flawed” and said it “plays into the hands of” industries that opposed it.
“This agreement represents unilateral economic disarmament,” said William F. O’Keefe, chairman of the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying group that represents a number of major U.S. industries. “It is a terrible deal, and the president should not sign it. If he does, business, labor and agriculture will campaign hard and will defeat it.”
If Clinton does sign, significant political obstacles could hinder or prevent Senate ratification of the treaty.
As delegates worked well into the 11th day of a scheduled 10-day conference, it degenerated into near-chaos overnight. Before the final agreement was signed, official translators who had worked through the night went home, leaving Russian, Japanese and European delegates often unable to communicate fully with each other over key remaining issues. Against that tense and difficult backdrop, delegates reached final agreement on many key components - including the American proposal to include six major greenhouse gases, rather than three - but many others were postponed by an obviously frustrated conference chairman, Raul A. Estrada-Oyuela of Argentina.
“This will enhance our growth, create new opportunities for technology and create a level playing field for U.S. industry,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, head of the American delegation. “This is a historic first step.”
In a victory for the Clinton administration, the pact includes an endorsement of market-based mechanisms that will encourage innovation and lower the costs for businesses and consumers. The agreement creates a mechanism by which companies from rich nations will provide technology and money to power plants and other projects in poorer nations. Administration officials argue that such joint ventures reduce emissions in the poorer nation, and act as a “bridge” toward eventual developing nation participation in a more comprehensive program of emissions reductions.
But in a setback for the Americans, a decision on many details of the programs affecting the 130-plus developing nations at the conference were delayed at least a year, until next November’s global climate summit in Buenos Aires. The postponement was forced by stubborn opposition from key developing countries, chiefly India and China, who made a last-minute stand against the proposals.
Developing countries also rejected more ambitious calls to curb the growth of greenhouse emissions in their own countries. Clinton administration officials had repeatedly called for “meaningful participation by key developing nations,” a goal Eizenstat said the Kyoto conference has not met.
“It appeared almost as if some wanted to block any deal at any cost,” Eizenstat said.
While the failure of developing nations to take stronger action raises serious questions about whether this climate treaty could win Senate ratification, it might be years before the Senate gets a shot at it. The most contentious issues postponed Thursday will be referred to sub-groups for study and more debate before being presented next year in Buenos Aires.
During a visit Monday to Kyoto, Vice President Al Gore instructed U.S. negotiators to take a softer line on emissions targets if other nations would agree to a framework of flexible, market-based implementation programs and on “meaningful participation” by developing countries. European countries responded with concessions, and by Wednesday delegation leaders were proclaiming victory was in reach.
But hopes for a deal sank late Wednesday when China and India tried to strip from the treaty an emissions trading program favored by the West. A visibly weary Estrada, the conference chairman, warned developing countries that they were “about to blow up the whole possibility of a treaty.”
“I invite the whole delegation to reflect on the consequences of what you are about to do,” he said.
After a short break, negotiators adopted a hastily crafted compromise that allowed the principle of emissions trading to stand, while calling for a yearlong study into how the trading should be implemented.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The Kyoto Protocol Details of the newly approved Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 Climate Change Treaty: Reductions. Thirty-eight industrialized nations are required to reduce their “greenhouse” gas emissions from 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. The European Union would reduce them by 8 percent, the United States by 7 percent and Japan by 6 percent. Some would face smaller reductions, and a few would not face any now. As a group, the nations would cut back on the emissions of such gases by just more than 5 percent. Gases involved. Emissions of six gases would be affected: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and three halocarbons used as substitutes for ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons. Enforcement. A later meeting of the treaty parties will decide on “appropriate and effective” ways to deal with non-compliance. Third World. Developing countries, including major greenhouse gas emitters such as China and India, are asked to set voluntary reduction targets. Next step. The accord approved by the Kyoto conference takes effect once it is ratified by 55 nations, representing 55 percent of 1990 carbon dioxide emissions. It is binding on individual countries only after their governments’ complete ratification.