Los Angeles Times
February 16, 2005
Nearly eight years after it was negotiated, the Kyoto Protocol to curtail greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming goes into effect today without the participation of the country that produces roughly a fourth of the world's heat-trapping exhaust: the United States.
A total of 140 countries have ratified the pact, the first major international effort to reduce the industrial emissions that many scientists believe are behind the increase in global temperatures during the last century.
But under the terms of the treaty, only developed nations will have to cut greenhouse gases. Thirty-five have agreed to lower them to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.
Critics of the accord, including U.S. officials, have argued that it places the developed world at a competitive disadvantage. Emerging economic giants such as China are expanding their energy use but are not required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
United Nations officials and numerous heads of state praised the treaty's formal launch as a long-overdue starting point.
"We have been waiting so long for the start of the Kyoto Protocol, there is a sense this is historic," Joke Waller-Hunter, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in an interview from Kyoto, Japan, where diplomats had gathered to commemorate the treaty.
For the treaty to take effect, nations responsible for at least 55% of the world's greenhouse gas production had to ratify it. That requirement was finally met last year when Russia agreed to participate.
However, the consensus of even the strongest Kyoto supporters is that the pact alone will barely make a dent in the problem of global warming — especially without the United States. The U.S. and Australia are the only large, developed nations not taking part.
Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, released mainly during the burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, are expected to increase even with the treaty because of the growing output of developing nations such as China and India.
In fact, it is far from certain that the 35 countries that have agreed to reduce the gases will actually do so. Japan and Canada have increased their emissions since the treaty was negotiated in Kyoto in 1997 and will have to make major reductions to comply.
Acknowledging that it would need stricter policies to abide by the treaty, Canada is considering ordering auto makers to reduce tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases in new vehicles sold in the country. Canadian officials said they expected a major announcement today at a Kyoto celebration in Toronto but declined to say whether it would be the vehicle rule.
Meanwhile, European leaders are already pressing to move beyond Kyoto and for the U.S. to resume a role in the discussions. On Tuesday, French President Jacques Chirac called for wealthy nations to go much further than the treaty's relatively modest reductions and slash emissions to a quarter of current levels by 2050. His remarks followed a speech by British Prime Minister Tony Blair last month that also called for stronger measures.
"Our first objective this year must be to reengage the United States in the international effort to fight climate change," Chirac said during a conference at the French presidential palace, adding that he planned to raise the issue with President Bush in Belgium next week.
Global temperatures have clearly risen during the last 100 years. Last year was the fourth-hottest ever recorded, according to a recent report by NASA, and most scientists now believe that human activities are at least playing a role in the shift.
However, there is still debate over whether greenhouse gases are the primary cause, with skeptics noting that Earth began emerging from a natural cooling period dubbed the Little Ice Age about 150 years ago.
The United States signed the Kyoto treaty in 1997, and then-Vice President Al Gore was one of its chief negotiators. But the Senate refused to ratify it, arguing that it would harm the American economy.
Bush, who campaigned before his first term on the promise that he would regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, changed his mind after taking office and withdrew from the Kyoto talks in 2001, advocating voluntary steps to reduce greenhouse gases.
Bush administration officials stressed that they regarded global warming as a significant concern. They argued that they simply had a different view of how to approach the problem, noting that they had committed more than $5 billion to research and other programs.
"We are continuing to move forward in an aggressive way to address climate change," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "It is a serious matter."
Environmental groups, however, accuse the United States of burying its head in the sand on global warming by refusing to take part in Kyoto.
The European Union, they note, has already begun an innovative market-based program that will allow nations such as Britain to receive credit for pollution-reduction investments they make in Eastern Europe.
The Kyoto treaty will launch a similar program worldwide, allowing companies that make investments in the developing world to receive "pollution credits," which they could sell to companies in developed countries for a profit.
The groups say U.S. companies are missing the opportunity to be part of the trade in credits.
"There are projects going on in China, India, Brazil right now where companies are looking for places to make easier reductions to help them reach their targets" in countries subject to Kyoto, said Annie Petsonk, international counsel for the group Environmental Defense.
Global-warming skeptics lauded the administration for taking a stand against an international rush to judgment. They noted that Kyoto would be far more costly to the United States than to the European nations pushing for the reductions.
"It's very convenient for the U.N. leaders to have President Bush to beat up on and to claim moral superiority by calling us environmental laggards," said Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Ebell was planning a celebration of his own tonight in Washington to mark the absence of the United States and Australia from the treaty.
Carbon dioxide is one of the main gases that result from the burning of oil and coal and contribute to a rise in global temperatures. Here are the 10 largest emitters of CO2 from fuel combustion in 1998, which accounted for 64% of the world total:
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