Published on Sunday, November 12, 2000 in the Washington Post
Global Warming Treaty Dispute Heats Up
by William Drozdiak
BRUSSELS - A bitter clash between the United States and Europe threatens to block agreement on how to comply with an international treaty on global warming when representatives from more than 150 countries gather Monday in The Hague.
The climactic round of negotiations, which could last two weeks, is supposed to resolve details of a treaty approved three years ago in Kyoto, Japan. That accord called for major industrial countries to roll back emissions of "greenhouse gases"--mainly carbon dioxide from the use of gasoline and other fossil fuels--to levels below what they were 10 years ago.
Despite intensive consultations, the United States and the 15-nation European Union have failed to bridge their differences over how to achieve those goals. The treaty has not been ratified by any country, and The Hague conference is considered the last chance to determine how to put it into effect.
The United States, backed by 14 Latin American countries, wants to encourage the trading of "pollution credits" among countries to meet the reduced emission levels. The United States also argues that countries should be allowed to calculate whether they reach the target by factoring in "carbon sinks"--forests and pastures that absorb carbon.
U.S. officials say the emissions-trading proposal has proved highly successful in getting rich and poor countries to cooperate in fighting pollution problems such as acid rain, in which toxic gases released by automobiles or industrial plants in one country inflict damage to forests in a neighboring country.
But the European Union complains the United States is trying to avoid painful measures that would substantially cut its output of greenhouse gases--carbon dioxide and other chemicals that trap heat in the atmosphere and may raise Earth's temperatures. About 24 percent of such gas production globally is attributed to the United States.
The Europeans want the United States to take tougher action to reduce its pollution levels rather than create loopholes that would allow it to fulfill its treaty obligations without trimming carbon emissions much. They have vowed to fight the use of "flexible mechanisms" advocated by the United States and demanded that tough sanctions be imposed on countries that miss the Kyoto target.
The EU position is strongly supported by U.S. environmental groups, which say the Clinton administration is buckling under pressure from automobile and other industries that insist the Kyoto goals are unrealistic and too expensive. Under the treaty, industrial countries are required to cut greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012 to an average of 5.2 percent less than their 1990 levels.
"The bottom line result of the U.S. negotiating position is that virtually no pollution reduction measures would need to be undertaken in the United States," said Alden Meyer, director of government relations with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "We could continue to drive gas-guzzling SUVs and operate dirty coal power plants while technically meeting our Kyoto obligations. We plan to work hard to block such an absurd outcome."
Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Wildlife Fund's climate change campaign, said the outcome of The Hague meeting could be the Clinton administration's most critical legacy. "While many governments want to do the right thing, we remain extremely concerned that the U.S. and others are negotiating a do-nothing treaty that does not require any real reductions at home," Morgan said.
But Undersecretary of State Frank Loy, who will head the U.S. team in The Hague, said that without such accounting methods as trading pollution credits and counting carbon sinks, the United States would face almost insurmountable difficulties meeting its treaty obligations.
Over the next 10 years, the United States would have to curtail pollution by at least one-third from current projections--a feat that U.S. officials say would require exorbitant investments and potentially major disruptions in the way Americans live. For those reasons, many members of Congress remain skeptical of the Kyoto treaty, especially at a time of soaring energy prices.
"The final agreement must ensure that overall costs of compliance with the Kyoto treaty will be reasonable and no higher than necessary," Loy told a joint hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and Foreign Relations Committee in September.
There is a growing conviction among many scientists that urgent steps must be taken to diminish greenhouse gases. A three-year federal study released today by the White House shows that climate change poses serious risks to the U.S. economy as well as the environment.
"Scientists project that continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions could raise temperatures across the country by 5 to 9 degrees over the next 100 years. To put that in perspective, the Earth has not seen a temperature change of that magnitude since the end of the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago," President Clinton said in an address delivered on the Internet.
"It could mean more flooding, more droughts, more extreme weather and a serious disruption of water supplies. It could mean rising sea levels, the loss of species and the destruction of entire ecosystems such as the alpine meadows of the Rocky Mountains," Clinton said.
In response to critics who say Clinton has failed to live up to his promises of waging an aggressive crusade against global warming, White House officials say $2.4 billion has been allocated in the 2001 budget to combat global climate change--an increase of 43 percent.
© 2000 The Washington Post