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To-do list means progress at U.N. global climate talks

Liz Neisloss By Liz Neisloss
CNN U.N. Producer

November 6, 1998
Web posted at: 10:31 a.m. EST (1531 GMT)

In this story:

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- If nothing is done to stop the rise in emissions of gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, the Earth's average temperature could rise 2 to 6 degrees over the next century, say scientists studying climate change for the United Nations.

Why should we care? After all, on a fall day in New York, the temperature can easily swing 20 degrees in an afternoon.

But those 20 degrees are part of weather change. The issue here is about climate -- the long-term changes in weather patterns. And that's what's behind the U.N. meeting now under way in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Conference
U.N. meeting in Buenos Aires on Tuesday  

That 2- to 6-degree estimate, some scientists say, could mean dramatic shifts in rainfall patterns, more severe droughts and heat waves, rising sea levels (with coastal flooding and even swamping of some island states), and a spread of tropical diseases, not to mention the extinction of some animal species and the wiping out of ecosystems.

All this may sound extreme, but these are among the predicted consequences of unrestricted use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), as well as industrial and agricultural activity and the clearing and burning of forests.

And though it may sound urgent, the work of resolving these problems is fraught with political and economic complexities that may take years to resolve.

That means conference observers expect little more out of Buenos Aires at the end of next week than agreement on a to-do list and a schedule for future talks.

First, a little background

This week, negotiators from 163 nations began meeting in Buenos Aires to resume U.N.-sponsored talks on details of a treaty to fight global warming.

During the two-week conference, participants are supposed to elaborate on plans to reach targets for reducing the heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases. These targets were laid out in a treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, last year.

Concern about global warming crystallized at the 1992 "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There the world put its concerns on paper and recognized climate change as a "common concern of humankind."

In Rio, nations agreed to work to keep heat-trapping gases from reaching levels that might dangerously interfere with the climate system. More than 170 countries ratified Rio's nonbinding commitment to get emissions down to 1990 levels by the year 2000.

Then, in Kyoto, developed countries went a step further by spelling out their commitments.

The result was the Kyoto Protocol, or treaty, which sets targets to reduce emissions of six key greenhouse gas emissions by at least 5 percent from 1990 levels. The reduction target for the United States is 7 percent. These targets are to be met by 2012.

So far, 60 countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol, but only the tiny island nation of Fiji has ratified it.

Now, here's the tricky part

With so much earlier enthusiasm about Rio, why all the hesitation after Kyoto?

While Kyoto spelled out the "mechanisms" or ways to achieve emissions reductions, it left out the detail on how those ideas will work. As a result, no one yet knows what the rules of the game will really be.

The three main mechanisms to get reductions are ideas called "emissions trading," "joint implementation" and the "clean development mechanism."

LA traffic
Traffic in Los Angeles ...  
Egypt traffic
... and in Egypt  

Emissions trading lets countries buy or sell excess emissions to others. Joint implementation gives developed countries credit for investments in clean technologies in other developed countries. And clean development mechanism gives developed countries credit for projects in still-developing nations.

So, in Buenos Aires, the next phase of negotiations begins -- and along with it, much of the political haggling over details.

For example, the United States wants unrestricted swapping of emissions. Critics, including the European Union and some environmentalists, say the United States and other rich countries could simply trade their way to emissions targets, rather than actually cutting emissions.

Other major issues to be worked out: What would the consequences of noncompliance be? How will countries be held accountable and emissions reductions policed?

Then, too, little progress is expected on one of the hottest political issues: what voluntary reductions developing countries might make.

At this point, developing nations do not have any binding emission-reduction commitments. Many say they should not be expected to pay for a problem created by others.

But the U.S. Senate has made it clear that congressional ratification of the Kyoto treaty could be tough without some kind of commitment on this front from developing countries.

Talking and planning, as emissions rise

Meanwhile, greenhouse emissions continue to rise, with transportation the fastest-growing source of emissions in most countries.

In the United States, the world's biggest producer of heat-trapping gases, scientists say emissions have gone up 10 percent since 1990.

Even among treaty supporters, both at the United Nations and elsewhere, then, there appears to be little hope or expectation that the targets spelled out in Kyoto can be reached.

Back in Rio in 1992, countries decided on a "precautionary" approach to climate change, which meant that even without scientific certainty, nations would act to avoid what could be "serious or irreversible damage" to the climate.

Even if Buenos Aires achieves little more than schedules and work plans, treaty supporters say it will at least maintain the political momentum needed to move the world toward emissions reductions.

Beyond Buenos Aires, nations will continue to be faced with this struggle as long as there's the prospect that a few degrees' difference could change the world.

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