KYOTO, Japan - The United States sought to save the U.N. global-warming conference from a last-minute meltdown yesterday with a "free market" plan permitting industrial nations to buy and sell each other's pollution.
Europe, which has staked out the environmentalist high ground throughout the 10-day event, snubbed the U.S. plan.
The deadlock prompted Washington's top negotiator to warn that the effort by nearly 170 nations to draft a treaty curbing so-called greenhouse gases could end in failure.
However, negotiators signaled they were nearing final agreement early today after hours of haggling. U.S. and European negotiators still were working on knotty final details relating to U.S. proposals the Europeans described as "loopholes," and U.S. demands for stronger compliance measures.
But if the last-minute differences between the United States and Europe are settled, an overall deal will be presented to the 150-nation conference later today for consensus approval. An accord would wrap up two years of negotiations.
The Convention on Climate Change faces a self-imposed deadline at midnight tonight to finish a treaty that would curb the use of oil, coal and other fossil fuels beginning early next century.
Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto engaged in frantic telephone diplomacy with President Clinton, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a last-minute attempt to secure a deal.
Washington has said it is ready to cut emissions by 5 percent below the 1990 levels by the year 2012, sources said. Washington had previously proposed cutting the levels to - but not below - 1990 levels.
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said in Washington that even if a deal is struck, it has only "bleak prospects" of ratification in the U.S. Senate.
He accused Vice President Al Gore of weakening U.S. leverage at the Kyoto conference with his instruction to the U.S. team this week to show "increased negotiating flexibility" - a move that pleased environmentalists and raised prospects for an agreement.
"I have made clear to the president personally that the Senate will not ratify a flawed Climate Change Treaty," Mr. Lott said in a letter to Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, who is leading a U.S. observer group in Kyoto.
Nations backing the treaty warn of a climate Armageddon of rising oceans, violent storms and deadly plagues.
But skeptics, who question the science of global warming, urged the United States to "run away" without signing anything. They fear that a treaty will give U.N. bureaucrats control of global energy use and plunge mankind into a dark, chilly future reminiscent of the 1970s oil shocks.
Critics say consumers would have to cut driving time by up to one-third and shiver under piles of blankets as homes become prohibitively expensive to heat.