After Bonn

Some of the US's closest allies insist the Kyoto climate change treaty is not dead, although diplomats and environmentalists fret that the long-term prognosis for the world's first greenhouse gas agreement is still shaky.

Some of the US's closest allies insist the Kyoto climate change treaty is not dead, although diplomats and environmentalists fret that the long-term prognosis for the world's first greenhouse gas agreement is still shaky.

Representatives from 178 countries meeting last month in Bonn disproved conventional wisdom that the treaty would be shelved because the US was not at the negotiating table. After 4 days of intense meetings, delegates declared they now have a more complete roadmap for countries to follow to meet Kyoto's goals. US officials attended the meetings but reiterated President George W. Bush's position that the treaty's emission targets are not scientifically based or environmentally effective, given the treaty's exclusion of developing countries from emissions target requirements.

Unhappy allies

The US has not been the only large industrialized country unhappy with the document. Australia, Canada, Japan, and Russia chose to endorse the treaty in Bonn only after winning several major concessions originally sought by the US. Binding targets are now, for all practical purposes, off the table. There is no financial penalty if a country fails to follow through with what it promised to accomplish. And there is no specific demand for a btu tax, although the treaty calls on developed countries to cut back favorable tax treatment for fossil fuels.

Industrialized countries will also have wide latitude in determining how much their own country needs to control greenhouse gases. Under a carbon credit system, industrialized countries will be allowed to consider reforestation and other agricultural activities that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as part of their emissions reductions. More carbon credits can be accumulated if an industrialized country agrees to pay for an environmentally friendly program in a developing country. Canada, Switzerland, the European Union, and Japan say they will spend a total of $420 million to finance CO2-absorbing projects such as tree-planting or clean-power conversions.

Devilish details

Much more work remains before the document takes on more than symbolic importance. Diplomats will meet again in Morocco this October to further fine-tune the legalese. At least 55 countries that released 55% of greenhouse gas emissions in 1990 must approve the treaty for it to take effect. Thirty countries have ratified it so far, but none are major industrialized countries. However that doesn't mean failure is imminent, insist European supporters and environmental groups.

"The Kyoto Protocol isn't perfect, but it's a good beginning. Nearly every world leader except [President] George Bush has recognized that," said Defenders of Wildlife's Carroll Muffett.

The US, meanwhile, has said it will follow its own path on climate change, although it is not clear what the president will propose. Past timetables to unveil a US climate change strategy have slipped. It is possible Congress, under a comprehensive energy bill or other legislative platform, may try to do the job for them. A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers wants to pay farmers to use no-till farming and other carbon sequestration methods. Other proposals would create a new climate change commission that would seek to harmonize US climate change policy with the rest of the world. And Democratic leaders in the Senate want to regulate CO2 like other pollutants.

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