MONTREAL – After two contentious weeks, the United States neared agreement with an array of other countries late Friday to join in global talks about possible new steps to combat climate change, the chief U.S. negotiator said.
“We’re getting very close. I’m quite confident we will have a successful outcome,” Harlan Watson said as the U.N. climate conference entered its final hours.
Any agreement would probably be only a small step forward, however, by a Bush administration that for days resisted Canadian and other efforts to draw it into multilateral talks on mandatory reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions in the period after 2012. President Bush three years ago renounced the Kyoto Protocol, which mandates such cuts before 2012, saying they would damage the U.S. economy.
Delegates were buoyed earlier in the day by an appearance by former President Clinton, a Kyoto supporter, who told them in a speech punctuated by enthusiastic applause that Bush’s economic argument is “flat wrong.”
But the ex-president urged the negotiators to find a way to “work with” the current U.S. administration.
Canadian officials said the U.S. delegation was displeased with the last-minute scheduling of the Clinton speech. But U.S. delegation chief Paula Dobriansky issued a statement saying events like Clinton’s appearance “are useful opportunities to hear a wide range of views on global climate change.”
In days of haggling here, the proposal presented to the Americans had been watered down to the point of saying that the “dialogue” over future actions “will not open any negotiations leading to new commitments.”
In a parallel development, the 157 nations that do subscribe to the Kyoto Protocol were nearing agreement on a separate, more concrete plan to negotiate deeper, post-2012 cuts – without U.S. participation.
The Montreal meeting was the first of the annual climate conferences since the Kyoto Protocol took effect last February, mandating cutbacks in 35 industrialized nations of emissions of carbon dioxide and five other gases by 2012.
A broad scientific consensus agrees that these gases accumulating in the atmosphere, by-products of automobile engines, power plants and other fossil fuel-burning industries, contributed significantly to the past century’s global temperature rise of 1 degree Fahrenheit.
Continued warming is melting glaciers worldwide, shrinking the Arctic ice cap and heating up the oceans, raising sea levels, scientists say. They predict major climate disruptions in coming decades.
Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, was instrumental in negotiating the treaty protocol initialed in 1997 in Kyoto, Japan – a pact that the Senate subsequently refused to ratify. When Bush rejected Kyoto outright, he complained that China, India and other major industrializing countries were not bound by its emission controls.
The protocol’s language required its member nations at this point to begin talks on presumably deeper emissions cuts for the next phase, after 2012.
Negotiations among the more than 150 nations that ratified Kyoto went on until dawn Friday and then resumed later in the day, as they hammered out final details of a plan whereby a working group would begin developing post-2012 proposals. The tentative document included no deadline for that work, but said it should be completed early enough to ensure that no gap develops after 2012.
That would guarantee an uninterrupted future for the burgeoning international “carbon market,” in which carbon reductions achieved by one company can be sold to another to help it meet its target.
At the same time, the host Canadians tried to draw in the Americans, Kyoto outsiders, on a parallel track, under the nonbinding 1992 U.N. climate treaty. Canada’s proposals offered vague, noncommittal language by which Washington would join only in a “dialogue” to “explore” cooperative action.
U.S. negotiators repeatedly rejected these efforts, though remaining in discussion with Canada’s environment minister, Stephane Dion, president of the conference.
The Americans also repeatedly pointed to $3-billion-a-year U.S. government spending on research and development of energy-saving technologies as a demonstration of U.S. efforts to combat climate change.
In a news conference after his speech, Clinton suggested the Europeans and others not force “targets” on Washington, but look for agreement on specific energy-saving projects.
“If we just keep working with the administration, we’ll find some specific things we can do that are consistent with the targets,” he said, but “without embracing the targets.”