Cool heads and global warming Kyoto accord: Agreement to restrain greenhouse gases needs worldwide commitment.

December 13, 1997

THE INTERNATIONAL agreement on global warming represents an environmental milestone, with the first legal obligations of the industrialized world to reduce heat-trapping fossil fuel emissions.

While troublesome details remain to be resolved, and ultimate ratification of the treaty by the more than 150 participating nations is uncertain, the accord gets the world moving in the right direction to address potentially serious climatic change.

The United States finally committed itself to a target of 7 percent reduction of greenhouse gases from 1990 levels; other industrialized countries have similar targets under the agreement that was two years in the making.

Previous global warming summits produced shared concerns and pledges of voluntary measures, which have not restrained the burning of carbon fuels that are gradually causing the Earth's temperature to rise. This accord in Kyoto sets a world goal of doing something about a longer-term environmental problem that requires longer-term action now.

While the science is imprecise, there is strong evidence that the surface temperature of the globe is rising and that human combustion of carbon fuels produces carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. Altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere can lead to drought, disease, flooding and other severe climatic upheavals.

Although the agreement does not set gas reduction targets for developing nations, their participation will be essential in coming years. Greenhouse gas emissions of developing countries are expected to exceed those of developed countries within a quarter-century. Another treaty is needed to elicit their commitments to cuts.

The hope is that industrial nations will receive emission credits for equipping developing countries with less polluting, more efficient technology. That would reduce the cost of compliance for countries such as the United States, which generates nearly one-quarter of the world's industrial gases.

Costs for the United States could be substantial, through carbon taxes to force fuel conservation, cleaner energy use and more efficient technologies. Much of that technology is already available; its widespread use will, if history is any teacher, significantly lower the costs for all. While the Kyoto accord is not without flaws, it is in the self-interest of the United States, and of the world, to make it work.

Pub Date: 12/13/97

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