Global-Warming Treaty: Last Gasp? ; This Week Europe Will Push Its Plan to Cut Industrial Gases. but US, Canada, and Other Nations Are Balking

Article excerpt

It's the most ambitious environmental treaty ever written. But can it be salvaged - or should it be - without the US as a partner?

These are the basic questions confronting negotiators from some 180 countries this week as they gather here to finish drafting the rules for the Kyoto Protocol. The global pact aims to cut the output of industrial gases, which many scientists say are raising the Earth's thermostat.

The Bush administration calls the treaty "fatally flawed," but on Friday it pledged to spend a total of $145 million on climate research and on technology to curb carbon-dioxide emissions. Still, most European leaders see Kyoto as the best hope for blunting the potentially devastating effects of growing "greenhouse gas" emissions. They are likely to make this a key issue in Italy later this week when President Bush arrives for another summit, the Group of Eight meeting of leading industrial nations.

The climate-treaty summit "is taking place under extraordinary conditions," says Kevin Baumert, a climate-change specialist at the World Resources Institute in Washington. "The US is coming to the meeting without any policy at all, except its opposition to the Kyoto Protocol."

The Protocol seeks to cut CO2 emissions worldwide by an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels over a four-year period beginning in 2008. Talks on the treaty's details collapsed last November, after the United States and the European Union failed to agree on how broadly a key compliance approach could be used.

Now talks are set to resume - informally today and formally on Thursday on rules governing what most scientists see as the human activities behind the rise in carbon dioxide.

US to fund better models

Some of the Bush administration response to the Kyoto approach was outlined Friday in a list of initiatives emerging from Bush's Cabinet-level advisory group on climate change. These include a $120 million effort by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to study key aspects of climate change and to spur improvements in climate models, which are used to predict global warming trends. The intent is to reduce uncertainties a National Academy of Science panel pinpointed for the administration in a recent review.

For example, the panel noted that it is unclear how efficiently the oceans and land-based ecosystems soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide. NASA is slated to spend some $50 million over the next three years on remote-sensing research that should help close that knowledge gap.

In addition, the White House initiatives include efforts to work with governments and nongovernment organizations to prevent the destruction of tropical forests, and to work with energy companies to develop technologies that could capture carbon from fossil fuels and sequester carbon dioxide underground.

Yet these approaches are likely to do little to offset what Mr. Baumert expects to be a chorus of "stinging criticism" of the administration's policy here. Disappointment runs deep that the US would walk away from a treaty it helped shape. The move has appeared to strengthen the resolve among other countries, especially key members of the EU, to conclude negotiations and ratify the agreement without the US.

"We could end up with quite a comprehensive set of rules," says Michael Grubb, professor of climate change and energy policy at Imperial College in London. Since last fall, he says, the EU's position has shifted "a long way" on how extensively countries could take credit for the amount of CO2 their forests and farmlands soak up - so-called carbon sinks. …