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Rifts Cloud Conference on Global Warming, Pollution

March 29, 1995|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — Representatives to a major United Nations conference on global warming on Tuesday began debating the need for new, tougher measures to reduce pollutants linked to the threat of climatic change. But deep divisions on how to proceed have severely reduced prospects for any breakthrough.

"Expectations could hardly be lower, the sense of weariness could hardly be greater," summed up a front-page commentary on the conference in Tuesday's editions of this country's most respected daily newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The 11-day Berlin climate conference is the first major follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where more than 100 countries, including the United States, signed a convention to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by the century's end.

The goal of conference organizers here is to win a mandate to do more.

"In Berlin, we must reach one patently obvious conclusion--namely that a 'second step' must urgently follow the first," Angela Merkel, Germany's environment minister and conference chairwoman, declared in an opening address.

"The commitments must become more stringent with the standards to be set for the period following the year 2000. We have come to recognize that the greenhouse effect is capable of destroying humanity."

In her speech, she quoted scientific studies that projected temperatures worldwide will increase by about 5 1/2 degrees Fahrenheit by the 21st Century's end if carbon and sulfur dioxide emissions continue to grow at their current pace.

Despite the urgency of her words, the scientific claims and the undisputed growth of carbon dioxide emissions since the 1992 Rio commitment was made, achieving any agreement on new steps is fraught with problems.

For example, the exact nature of the link between industrial pollution and climatic change remains a matter of intense debate in scientific circles.

Also, only a handful of nations have managed to follow through on Rio commitments to the extent needed; that has made many delegation heads cautious about signing up for more stringent standards.

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But there are other factors too that are likely to hamper any quick endorsement of tighter standards, including:

* Severe economic problems and continued high unemployment in many parts of the industrialized world have noticeably dampened enthusiasm for new steps among the major nations since the heady days of the Rio meeting.

* Newly industrialized Third World nations are highly skeptical of new restrictions that could stifle their attempts to sustain economic growth and achieve Western living standards.

* Large oil-producing nations want no part of tighter standards, seeing them as a threat to their economic viability.

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