Emissions Pact Goes Forward ; but Tougher Work of Cutting Greenhouse Gases under Kyoto Protocol Remains

Article excerpt

After seven years of bruising negotiations, repudiation by one of its early architects, and repeated pronouncements of its imminent demise, a 1997 pact to curb the growth of greenhouse gases tied to global warming is limping toward ratification.

Now comes the hard part: putting its complex rules into effect, and planning for what will follow once the agreement's first - and so far, only - formal commitment period ends after 2012.

"This is the most complicated, sophisticated effort at directed change" in international environmental policy ever attempted, notes Elliot Diringer, director of international strategies for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "Is it possible? We'll find out."

The pact in question, the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, requires countries signing the agreement to reduce global carbon-dioxide emissions by an average of 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Many atmospheric scientists agree that these emissions are at least partly responsible for an increase in average global temperatures. Those temperatures are expected to rise for the foreseeable future, with disruptive consequences worldwide.

Already, 126 nations have ratified the agreement - more than double the 55 needed. But the ratifying industrial countries only accounted for 44.2 percent of industrial-country emissions (55 percent are needed).

Last week, the final piece in that ratification puzzle appeared to fall into place when the Russian cabinet voted to ratify the accord. It now goes to the Russian Duma for the final vote, seen by many as a formality in the wake of the cabinet's decision.

Even if every signatory meets its emissions-reduction goal, the effort would barely slow the rate of increase of CO2 and have virtually no effect on climate.

By the end of this century, atmospheric CO2 is expected to double over preindustrial levels. That's because of the world's widespread use of coal, oil, and natural gas since the start of the Industrial Revolution as well as changes in land-use patterns.

Yet the value of the agreement lies less in its immediate effect on the atmosphere than on the political and diplomatic chemistry needed to deal with a problem that is likely to take decades to solve, some analysts say.

The 1997 accord "puts real pressure on countries to deliver on their commitments. Countries will demonstrate that it can be done affordably. And most important, ratification sets in motion the diplomatic machinery" to look beyond 2012, Mr. Diringer says.

He notes that the accord requires signatories to begin talks next year on a new round of targets and timetables for emission reductions.

"This is the first step in what will need to be a decades-long process," adds David Sandalow, a Brookings Institution scholar who has served as assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment, and science under President Clinton. …