A fair trade for hot air now being negotiated? Global warming: Transfer of greenhouse gas rights between nations critical to climate accord.

November 14, 1998

AS GLOBAL warming treaty talks ended yesterday in Argentina, the 160 nations were divided on the important nTC concept of emissions trading.

Essentially, it allows one country to pay another country for its unused "pollution rights" assigned by the international agreement. The pollution is emissions of "greenhouse gases," mostly from burning carbon fuels, into the atmosphere where they trap heat and warm the planet.

The United States wants unlimited ability to buy these emission rights to help meet its pledge to reduce warming gases by 7 percent from the 1990 base level. The United States (which generates a quarter of global gases) would otherwise have to significantly cut back on industry, power, transportation and other gas sources.

The European Union opposes the plan, fearing it will allow rich nations to avoid efforts to curb their own substantial emissions.

Some countries in Eastern Europe and the tropics favor emissions trading, expecting to sell their excess rights for cash and for modern low-polluting technology. They include nations that can plant large forests, which act as "carbon sinks" to absorb greenhouse gases.

Emissions trading is already working in this country, with the transfer of "acid rain," or sulfur dioxide, emission rights between large power plants and factories. The price of these rights has plummeted, as companies find cheaper ways to clean up and cut their own emissions instead, and sulfur air pollution has dropped.

Allocation of warming gases rights and credits would be decided by the world treaty, using scientific estimates. That's how sulfur dioxide rights are set in the United States today.

There are objections that Russia and Ukraine, large ex-Soviet states, have exaggerated estimates of their warming gas output, in order to sell more rights to wealthier nations. (Their industrial decline has slashed their emissions levels.)

Those figures could be adjusted, without abandoning the concept of emissions trading. The market system is crucial to full commitment by the United States, which signed a nonbinding global warming accord this week to energize the talks.

Trading will efficiently reduce greenhouse gases in the world, which is the universal goal.

Pub Date: 11/14/98

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