Published on Friday, November 24, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Activists, Delegates Say Washington Is Seeking Loopholes In Efforts To Cut Global Gas Emissions
by John-Thor Dahlburg
"We have all concluded that the U.S. has brought these negotiations to the brink of failure by seeking loophole after loophole," Philip Clapp, president of the Washington-based National Environmental Trust, said at a joint news conference organized by U.S. ecological groups.
The Clinton administration's chief negotiator at the talks, Undersecretary of State Frank Loy, has had a raspberry, chocolate and cream cake thrown in his face by incensed protesters. On Thursday, about 200 American students from the environmental organization Greenpeace showed up and announced that they were observing a Thanksgiving fast to denounce their country's stance.
"Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day to warm the heart, not the atmosphere," said Alex Tapia, 21, of Austin, Texas.
The U.N. conference on climate change, attended by the envoys of more than 180 nations, is supposed to put teeth in the agreement reached three years ago in Kyoto, Japan, to cut worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases.
Those gases, accumulating in the atmosphere, are causing the planet to heat up. They are seen by many scientists as the cause of melting glaciers, rising sea levels and an increase in storms--from record rains in Santa Barbara two years ago to the mighty storm that felled trees by the millions in France last December.
The goal subscribed to in Kyoto was to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases to 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. Delegates meeting here since last week have proved incapable of agreeing on key issues, including to what degree countries should be allowed to take credit for forests and farmland that soak up carbon dioxide, rather than taking additional steps to reduce output of the heat-trapping gases.
"There has been progress, but not enough," Jan Pronk, environmental minister of the Netherlands and chairman of the conference, said Thursday. "There has been a greater divergence of opinion than could have been expected."
"I will make suggestions which may cause pain, which will cause pain, but there will be a sharing of pain as evenly as possible," the Dutchman announced. He said he is determined to wind up the meeting by Saturday, one day later than originally scheduled.
The main onus of the so-called Kyoto Protocol falls on the industrialized nations that burn much of the world's oil, coal and other fossil fuels. The United States, generator of a quarter of the planet's greenhouse gases--more than any other country--is supposed to cut its emissions by 7% from the 1990 benchmark. Europe is supposed to reduce its output by 8%, and Japan by 6%.
In a sense, because of the U.S. economic boom, those numbers are misleading. Because of the full-bore growth of the economy in recent years, U.S. officials estimate that their country would have to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 35% from current levels.
To meet that obligation, the U.S. insists on taking advantage of the full panoply of possibilities that it says was enshrined at Kyoto. That includes a trading mechanism that would allow a noncomplying country to purchase "credits" from another nation that meets or exceeds its gas-reduction obligations. In effect, Americans would then be buying from Belgians or Botswanans the right to pollute.
"To meet the target, we need all of the tools we took on at Kyoto," one official on the 150-member U.S. delegation explained Thursday. "The atmosphere doesn't care whether you're getting a reduction in gas from Russia or Paris."
Outraged environmentalists see that strategy as an attempt by a wealthy, powerful nation to buy its way out of its commitments. According to Clapp, the U.S. approach would allow it to meet 84% of its obligations through "loopholes that don't represent any reductions of emissions into the atmosphere."
Bill Nye, an American who hosts a popular television program on science and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, came to The Hague to use an aquarium, vinegar and baking powder to demonstrate to reporters how carbon dioxide retains heat and to urge his country to heed the concerns of others.
"If the U.S. can take that extra step, I think we can go forward and--dare I say it--change the world," said Nye, a mechanical engineer.
Many Europeans also have been dismayed at the U.S. position.
"We have been left aghast at the lack of the meeting of minds between us as Europeans and the United States," said Chris Davies, a British member of the European Parliament. On Monday, French President Jacques Chirac made the trip from Paris to this Dutch seaside city to demand that the United States do more.
"Each American emits three times more greenhouse gases than a Frenchman," Chirac said. "It is in the Americans, in the first place, that we place our hopes of effectively limiting greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale."
For many influential Americans, though, jobs are at least as important as scaling back carbon dioxide releases into the atmosphere. Already, the Senate has passed a resolution making its approval of any treaty commitment on reducing global emissions contingent on a guarantee that the pact would not harm the competitiveness of U.S. business.
"What we want is a way that makes it work without penalizing the economies of the world and our economy," Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) told reporters during a visit to The Hague this week.
In search of compromise, the American delegation volunteered to reduce the emissions credits that the U.S. or any other nation could derive from its forests and farmland, which soak up carbon dioxide.
Despite the dearth of progress, U.S. delegates said the conference in The Hague seemed to be moving from a phase of inflexible public posturing to genuine dealing. Jokingly pleading with any more cake-throwers in the audience to spare him because he was wearing his last clean suit, Loy produced a Thanksgiving metaphor.
"It's time to talk turkey," the undersecretary of State for global affairs said at a Thursday evening news briefing. "And I'm pleased to say that we are now talking turkey in this conference."
Dominique Voynet, France's environment minister and head of the 15-nation European Union contingent here, also was upbeat, saying the mood of the meeting had changed from one of collective depression to a willingness to engage in hard-nosed bargaining.
"Everything can either split apart or solidify," she said. "We are now testing ideas that we never thought of before."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times