Published on Tuesday, December 19, 2000 in the Independent / UK
Going Backwards:
Americans Dash Hope of Climate Change Deal
by Stephen Castle in Brussels
Prospects of a new global deal to combat climate change suffered a serious blow last night when the United States backed out of emergency talks with European ministers in Oslo this week.

The move became known after a day of frenetic telephone contact between EU and American officials failed to break the deadlock. Although the European negotiators declared themselves ready to meet in Norway they insisted the new summit take place without preconditions. That was rejected by their US counterparts, backed by Canada, Japan and Australia, just before 5pm.

The latest developments could dash hopes of achieving a breakthrough before the advent of a new US administration led by George W Bush, whose record on the environment in his home state of Texas points to a hawkish US stance.

It also came amid continuing tension between John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Dominique Voynet, the French Environment Minister, who chaired a gathering of EU environment ministers yesterday.

The two clashed as last month's talks in The Hague on restricting industrial and vehicle emissions collapsed amid acrimony. Before arriving in Brussels Mr Prescott played down the rift, arguing that both parties were professional politicians and would concentrate on reviving the climate change deal. By contrast Ms Voynet brushed aside questions about her relations with Mr Prescott.

Yesterday's meeting of ministers in Brussels aimed to agree a coherent position to approach a set of fresh discussions in Oslo, which might salvage a deal under the existing presidency.

Europeans have long believed that the outgoing administration, or a new one led by Al Gore – who attended the Kyoto talks – would present the best prospect of a deal. News of an incoming Bush presidency prompted a desperate scramble to an interim deal.

At last month's talks in The Hague, America held out for the right to rely on carbon "sink" forests and plantations to mop up excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The EU wants America to make real cuts in fossil fuel use, arguing that forestry does not provide a long-term solution.

But, in recent days, there was some optimism that the deal could be resurrected, particularly after a warning from the outgoing President Clinton that Florida could be swamped by floods because of climate change.

However, indications that the transatlantic dialogue was moving in the wrong direction emerged yesterday afternoon when Ms Voynet said the European side had "confirmed that we are ready" and that it had "the basis of the opening of an agreement".

She added: "It is quite difficult to explain what is the situation in the US. It is quite difficult to understand if there is a strong will to succeed in Oslo."

© 2000 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.