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Kyoto Climate Pact a Decade Old

December 11, 2007

BALI, Indonesia — The American vice president was an environmentalist and the U.S. Congress was conservative. China and India were on the fringes of the climate change debate. And big business said going green would strangle industry.

The Kyoto global warming pact – which marked its 10th anniversary Tuesday – was brokered under vastly different circumstances from those facing negotiators this week as they map out an agenda for a successor agreement.

Those changing circumstances, from China’s rise as a top polluter to the rapidly mounting evidence that global warming is a threat, are certain to leave their imprint on a new pact to go into force in 2012, when Kyoto’s commitment period expires.

The Kyoto pact requires 36 industrialized nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. Australia announced last week it would join, leaving the United States as the only major developed economy to have rejected it.

The mood in Bali on Tuesday mixed celebration of the world’s first steps to tackle global warming – negotiators cut a massive birthday cake – with regret over the U.S. refusal to join and the struggle of many countries to meet their gas cut targets.

But it was clear that Kyoto was negotiated in a different era.

In 1997, Al Gore – who won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for his work on the environment – was vice president, while the Republican-controlled Congress was highly skeptical that climate change was a major threat.

Now the situation is reversed. The U.S. delegation rejects Kyoto and has not supported calls for mandatory emissions caps, while a Democrat-controlled Congress – fueled by rising public concern over warming – is moving in favor of deep greenhouse gas cuts.

“For the U.S., it was fundamentally different,” recalled David Doniger, who helped negotiate Kyoto as a member of the U.S. delegation in 1997.

“The (Clinton) administration was leaning way ahead of the Congress, way ahead of the business community,” said Doniger, who is in Bali with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The environmental community was concerned, but they had not propagated the message.”

That political change has already influenced talks in Bali, where many are pushing to delay serious talks about binding emissions targets until after the 2008 U.S. presidential elections, which they hope will bring in an administration ready to agree to deep cuts.

The emissions landscape has also changed dramatically. In the 1990s, the focus was on the United States, Europe and Japan. But now, some experts say economically booming China has already surpassed the United States as the top emitter, and India is a growing concern.

That development has strengthened the hand of those arguing poorer nations must also take steps to stop polluting. Beijing, while still insisting that rich nations have the first responsibility to fight the problem, is showing greater willingness to take steps to control – if not actually reduce – pollution.

“That was the attitude: ‘This is your problem – you solve it,’” Alden Meyer, a climate policy specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said of China’s stance at the Kyoto discussions. “Now I think they’re realizing that they have a large role to play here and they have an interest in being a leader in solving it.”

The advances in scientific knowledge about global warming, summed up in a series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have largely put to rest the debate – still very much alive in 1997 – over whether rising temperatures were a threat. The panel shared this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Gore.

Now, scientists say, the focus of research has to shift to how countries can limit emissions and adapt to global warming-causes changes – such as rising sea levels – that are inevitable because of the heat-trapping gases already released.

“The whole world is agreed there is a problem,” said Frank Raes, a climatologist with the European Commission. “Now we come into the next phase where we have to act, which means implementing the Kyoto Protocol.”

Business has also become a larger part of the anti-global warming picture. Carbon trading in Europe, so-called green technologies, and development in solar panels and other renewable energy sources are turning into potential moneymakers for industry.

The protocol itself – and its flaws – is also one of the decisive factors of the past 10 years that will influence a successor pact.

While supporters see Kyoto as a landmark agreement, many concede it falls short on many counts. The prescribed cuts are not deep enough to have a real impact on global warming and were decided by politics rather than science.

Though Europe, Japan and Australia have signed on, Washington has stood fast in its opposition, arguing mandatory cuts would hurt economic growth, and that the pact is fatally flawed by a lack of commitments for developing countries. The U.S. absence has greatly reduced Kyoto’s effectiveness – a lesson many in Bali are mindful of as they try to craft an agenda for coming negotiations that the Americans will go along with.

While the changes of the past decade have encouraged some in Bali that they can eventually build a more effective agreement to succeed Kyoto, one group is quickly running out of time: Pacific island nations whose very survival is threatened by rising seas.

Espen Ronneberg, a Marshall Islander in Bali as a member of the Samoa delegation, said he was optimistic when Kyoto was concluded, but that the rest of the world did not appear ready to take further dramatic action needed to curb rising temperatures.

“We’re almost being sacrificed in the interest of economic growth that’s driven by fossil fuels,” Ronneberg said. “It’s frustrating to hear from other countries that they can’t afford to do anything.”

Associated Press Writer Joseph Coleman helped covered the Kyoto conference in 1997.


Kyoto Climate Pact a Decade Old


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