U.S., Australia only major holdouts on `greenhouse gas' pact

Countries haven't signed Kyoto Protocol, requiring emissions reductions

December 12, 2004|By Hector Tobar | Hector Tobar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - The United States is the big odd man out as diplomats, scientists and environmentalists from more than 190 countries gather at the 10th meeting of the United Nations' Convention on Climate Change. The convention's Kyoto Protocol, with its mandatory reduction of "greenhouse gases" that cause global warming, goes into force next year. Discussions of new limits are expected to begin here when official delegations arrive Wednesday, near the end of the 12-day conference.

Among major countries, only the United States and Australia have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, in which signatory nations agree to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Observers here say the United States is increasingly being shut out as the rest of the world adopts the mechanisms by which each country will meet its targeted reductions, including a potentially lucrative mechanism by which companies can trade reductions in carbon emissions in a kind of pollution market.

The United States produces 30 percent of the world's emissions of greenhouse gases. Washington pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

Last week, U.S. officials acknowledged a global rise in temperatures caused by human activity but said the increase had not reached the "dangerous" levels that require drastic action. They reiterated that the Bush administration would not push for U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

`Political agreement'

"The Kyoto Protocol was a political agreement," said Harlan L. Watson, President Bush's senior climate negotiator and the head of the U.S. delegation to the conference. "It was not based on science."

Watson, a physicist, is playing the role of spoilsport at the conference, enduring the private criticism of fellow delegates and the thinly veiled hostility of environmentalists who have come to the conference in large numbers as observers.

"I'm not sure why we are considered the `bad boys,'" Watson said at a news conference last week. "We believe we match or exceed what any other country in the world is doing to address the issue."

Watson and other U.S. officials here point out that the Bush administration has set aside billions to fund climate research and weather monitoring programs around the world.

In 2002, Bush committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 18 percent by the year 2012 but linked the reductions to growth in gross domestic product. However, U.S. officials at the conference said emissions would likely be 15 percent above 1990 levels, far higher than mandated in the Kyoto pact. The U.S. plan is based chiefly on voluntary measures because Bush administration officials believe mandatory limits would hinder economic growth.

At another session, Watson took questions from environmentalists and acknowledged the scientific consensus on global warming: that the global temperature had risen 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century and that the rise is linked to human activity.

There is also widespread agreement that climate science is not yet able to predict precisely what the long-term consequences of global warming will be.

"There's a lot of uncertainty, and we'll leave it at that," Watson told environmentalists. He said the United States would not revisit its goals for greenhouse gas reduction until 2012, when it would reassess a new round of climate studies.

Russian ratification

In the meantime, much of the rest of the developing world will begin implementing the Kyoto Protocol. Drafted in 1997, the agreement passed its final hurdle in November, when Russia ratified the treaty.

Yvo de Boer, the chief negotiator on climate issues for the European Union, said the political atmosphere had changed drastically in favor of worldwide action to combat global warming.

"There was a great reluctance before the Russian ratification to begin any change toward the future," De Boer said. "That situation has clearly changed."

Environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund are pushing the Kyoto parties to move toward stricter limits.

Although no major agreements are expected as the convention reaches its climax this week, the officials are likely to make progress on many of the technical details of the Kyoto agreement.

During a series of meetings and workshops last week, businesspeople, environmental activists, and U.N. scientists and officials debated the regulations, standards and bureaucracy that would be created to monitor greenhouse gas emissions and ensure compliance with the Kyoto reduction targets.

"What you're seeing here is the very early stages of the creation of a kind of central bank," one European delegate said after sitting through a two-hour question-and-answer session with the Clean Development Mechanism executive board.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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