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Countries Warm Up for Climate Talks

Environment: In this round, international negotiators must hammer out details for cutting greenhouse gases.

October 30, 1998|ART PINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Last December, 166 countries reached a landmark agreement in Kyoto, Japan, that was hailed as a major breakthrough in efforts by governments to address the problem of global warming.

Now comes the hard part: setting up the complex machinery needed to implement the remedies.

It is this daunting job that faces international negotiators as they begin meeting next week in Buenos Aires.

What made the Kyoto treaty groundbreaking was that, for the first time, it obligated the United States and other major industrial democracies to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases, which scientists say are dangerously warming the atmosphere.

Those countries agreed to reduce their emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. (The U.S. has not yet approved the treaty, however.) Developing countries, which produce far less in carbon dioxide and other pollutants, were asked--but not required--to set voluntary emissions targets.

Like many such arrangements, however, the devil is going to be in the details--how quickly the new standards should take effect, how much the industrial countries should be able to fudge and, ultimately, how much poorer countries should later be pressed to do.

From Nov. 2-13, negotiators will try to hammer out some of those details by producing timetables and work plans for implementing the Kyoto treaty's provisions.

But the effort will be fraught with challenges.

The United States and Europe are bickering over how freely to permit richer countries to "buy" emissions-reduction credits from poorer countries that do not pollute enough to use up their emissions allowances.

And developing countries are sparring over how vigorously they should have to hew to international standards. Third World governments argue that they cannot afford emissions-cutting technology and are not big polluters anyway.

Finally, the Kyoto treaty--hammered out during the wee hours after a marathon negotiating session--contains a spate of vaguely worded provisions that are rife with important unresolved issues, such as how to measure whether a country is complying.

Although no one believes that the negotiations in Buenos Aires will settle the big issues that Kyoto left open, the two-week parley is expected to set up the organizational structure needed to tackle them within a few years.

Environmentalists say the session is important because the structure of new international working groups--and the timetable established to draft formal work plans--could seriously influence how the bigger issues are resolved.

Daniel Lashof, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the meeting in Buenos Aires "has to produce a concrete work plan for resolving those issues and keep the process moving forward" or it could risk diluting--or eventually unraveling--the Kyoto accord.

The session is especially critical to the Clinton administration, which already is facing threats from Senate Republicans that they will not ratify the Kyoto treaty once President Clinton signs it unless their key concerns are addressed. The United States is the only major industrial nation that still has not signed the pact.

A particular hot-button issue on Capitol Hill is the perception that, unless developing countries sign on to the treaty soon, American corporations will be at a competitive disadvantage if they have to pay for emissions-reduction technology while poorer countries do not.

As a result of the congressional skepticism, Clinton has pledged not to send the Kyoto accord to the Senate for ratification until there is "meaningful" participation by developing countries--a phrase that he conspicuously has declined to define.

And, unlike the situation in Kyoto, where negotiators faced the prospect that the effort might collapse if they could not reach agreement, there will be few pressures in Buenos Aires to create dramatic breakthroughs. Instead, negotiators will be seeking only to maintain the momentum of the Kyoto conference, which built upon a 1992 treaty signed in Rio de Janeiro.

Even so, the United States will come under heavy fire. Partly because of opposition in Congress, the Clinton administration has done little to cut emissions gases at home.

To deflect some of that criticism, Clinton is considering signing the accord just before the Buenos Aires conference opens, instead of in January, as had been expected. But U.S. differences with Europe and developing countries are certain to remain.

Even if it signs the treaty, however, Washington will probably face escalating rhetoric from the developing countries. Representatives of developing nations contend that their countries are doing more to hold down emissions than their industrialized counterparts.

Much of U.S. industry is opposed to the Kyoto treaty, contending that meeting emissions-reduction requirements would cost billions of dollars and make them less competitive worldwide, without solving the problem.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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