Published on Saturday, September 2, 2000 by Agence France-Presse
Global Warming Talks: Can They Be Saved?
 
Efforts to inject life into the Kyoto Protocol on global warming enter a crucial phase next week as negotiators grapple with the toughest technical issues, their leeway tightly constrained by US election politics.

The UN accord was signed in 1997 with the aim of staving off disastrous climate change through the most ambitious environment ideas ever launched in the international arena.

But in the years of grinding work to build the treaty's mechanisms, imagination has long been exhausted, replaced by diplomatic trench warfare.

There are now only 10 weeks left before final talks determine whether Kyoto's smart ideas will be made to work, turned into fudge or put on bureaucrats' shelves to gather dust.

Several thousand delegates, from governments, environment groups and business lobbies, meet in Lyon, southeastern France, for a week of informal talks from Monday followed by four days of formal sessions.

Their job is to bridge wide gaps on how to reduce the burning of fossil fuels whose gases have caused a steady and potentially disastrous warming of the Earth's atmosphere.

In what it called a "wakeup call," the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on Wednesday published a study predicting climate change would destroy or alter a third of the world's habitat by the end of the century.

Other research suggests global warming will wreak regional havoc by disrupting rain patterns, triggering extreme storms and prolonged droughts. Melting of polar ice and thermal expansion of the seas will swamp small island states and deltas, creating tens of millions of "climate refugees."

Averting the crisis, though, is another matter. There is little taste for sacrifice among the advanced industrialised countries which, under the treaty, are required to trim their gas emissions.

Delegation sources say these are the sticking points in Lyon:

-- setting up a system in which countries and businesses can buy or sell quotas of gases as a financial incentive to curb pollution. The scheme is enthusiastically embraced by the United States, which says it should be used without restrictions, while the 15-nation European Union (EU) is suspicious and wants a cap on quota trade.

The EU senses that the United States, which by itself accounts for more than a third of all gas emissions among the quota countries, could simply buy its way out of trouble without having to push through tough environmental laws.

-- how to calculate the benefits of forests, which soak up carbon dioxide and thus can be used to "offset" gas quotas.

The United States, which is thickly forested, wants a generous definition of this formula. The EU suspects this to be another US attempt to avoid belt-tightening, and wants the definition to be narrow.

-- compliance with the treaty. Here, the US-EU positions have been gradually closing, moving towards clauses that would punish countries for failing to meet their commitments. Japan and Russia, however, are opposed.

Casting a shadow over proceedings are the US elections, which take place on November 7, just ahead of the final negotiations at ministerial level in The Hague, running from November 13-24.

Environmentalists complain that the US position is perilously rigid, suggesting the negotiating team, named by a lame-duck Democratic administration, has no mandate or will to make concessions.

In their view, any deal the US team makes could be weakened or wrecked if an extremely conservative Senate emerges from the elections or George W. Bush, an oilman, enters the Oval Office.

A European delegation chief said that Lyon at best would yield "bits of consensus" on "relatively technical subjects." Equally muted, UN convenor Michael Zammit Cutajar described the meeting as "a political opportunity to disentangle and thin out the negotiating issues."

Copyright 2000 AFP

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