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Degrees of Progress at Environmental Summit

Global warming: Delegates set compliance deadline. U.S. hails shift in developing nations' attitude.

November 15, 1998|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — After an all-night session culminating two weeks of sometimes contentious and bureaucratic talks, negotiators from more than 170 nations attending a conference on global warming here wrapped up the event Saturday with the expected result: modest progress.

Following up on a treaty hammered out last year in Kyoto, Japan, the delegates set 2000 as a deadline for creating a global mechanism to police efforts to reduce emissions of six "greenhouse" gases that cause global warming and to hold accountable the nations that fail to comply.

The participants also made small steps on a fundamental and divisive issue: the use of U.S.-backed, market-based plans allowing industrialized nations to meet anti-pollution targets by trading emission "credits" or funding clean-air projects in poorer nations.

U.S. diplomats and environmentalists welcomed the notable change in the attitudes of developing nations, which in the past monolithically resisted pressure to increase their role in the fight against global warming.

Because U.S. ratification of the Kyoto treaty faces stiff opposition from Senate opponents who demand "meaningful progress" by key developing nations before considering the issue, last week's unprecedented promises by Argentina and three other countries to cut emissions voluntarily amounted to a domestic political victory for the Clinton administration.

"These pledges reflect a growing recognition that climate change is truly a global challenge that requires a global solution," said Undersecretary of State Stuart E. Eizenstat, the chief U.S. delegate. "They have changed the map of future negotiations."

Latin American and African nations in particular showed a new willingness to participate in initiatives with industrialized nations.

Their shift reveals a split in a bloc of 77 developing nations--led by China and India--that has insisted that the United States and other top polluters reduce emissions at home before requiring sacrifices of others.

During a year when record-high temperatures and destructive hurricanes are seen as ominous signs of the menace of climate changes, however, the breakthrough is more an encouraging change of mentality than a substantive achievement. It was also one of the few bright points of a conference that, burdened with the responsibility for creating a process to implement the Kyoto treaty, proceeded at a sometimes painful pace.

The first week of discussions among bureaucrats bogged down in minutiae and acrimony, slowing the work of high-ranking negotiators who arrived during the final days, observers complained.

"Civil servants achieved absolutely nothing in Buenos Aires," asserted Lars Jensen of the World Wildlife Fund. "Until [environmental] ministers arrived, the hurricane of climate change was blowing in the world outside while here, at the eye of the storm, there was an eerie silence."

Other environmentalists took a more enthusiastic view.

The head of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund praised the Clinton administration's emphasis on the "innovative proposal" of emission trading and other market-based approaches, which drew increasing interest here from developing nations.

"Countries and companies will have the opportunity to make [emission] reductions in the most cost-effective way possible and incentives to make them even faster than required," said Fred Krupp, the organization's executive director.

Three strategies approved in Kyoto are the centerpiece of what U.S. diplomats call a "win-win" market-based approach to reducing emissions while sustaining economic growth.

Industrialized nations can gain emission reduction credits through a "clean development mechanism" by financing clean-air projects in developing nations; nations can "trade" emission allowances with one another; and developed nations can gain credit by helping other developed nations reduce emissions.

The continuing philosophical dispute about this reliance on economics and "flexibility" remained a key point of contention at the conference, pitting the United States against European nations. The latter want to limit the extent to which industrialized nations can lighten their anti-pollution burden by trying to reduce emissions in developing nations, which have no binding targets. The U.S. opposes any such caps.

Skeptics worry that the market-based schemes are vulnerable to manipulation and deception. They say such plans should not replace concerted domestic efforts by developed nations, which are committed to reducing emissions by at least 5% from 2008 to 2012.

"This is turning into a trade and economic negotiation; climate is getting pushed further and further down the agenda," said Bill Hare of Greenpeace, an environmental group. "Science is being replaced by carbon trading markets as the driver for the talks."

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