Agreeing that humankind is warming the Earth’s atmosphere, a 75-nation conference of scientists and government officials Thursday set the stage for an international effort to combat pollutants that accelerate nature’s “greenhouse effect.”
Although acknowledging that vast uncertainty exists about the pace and extent of the phenomenon, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said its estimate that the atmosphere will be 5.4 degrees warmer by the end of the next century is more likely to be too low than too high.
Delegates also sharpened warnings of the potentially disastrous human and economic impact of global warming in generations ahead.
If no action is taken to stem the worldwide emission of the so-called greenhouse gases, they warned, expanding seas and melting polar ice might produce sea level increases of as much as three feet by the year 2100. And, if that happened, they concluded, 224,000 miles of coastline would be affected. That would “render some island countries uninhabitable, displace tens of millions of people, threaten low-lying urban areas, flood productive land and contaminate fresh water supplies.”
The aim of the meeting, held in this central Swedish town, was to lay the groundwork for a treaty on global warming that, it is hoped, will be adopted at a United Nations conference on the environment and development in Brasilia, Brazil, in June, 1992.
During much of the conference, the United States, which has resisted the idea of mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions, once again found itself at odds with European nations, several of which have already set targets and deadlines for restricting greenhouse gases.
After four days of debate, the delegates found themselves running out of time and were forced to shorten debate on 30 pages of amendments to a controversial study of potential strategies for confronting the situation, which some scientists regard as an unprecedented environmental crisis.
The final report, therefore, represents acceptance by the world scientific and environmental community of the threat of global warming and its potentially grave consequences but lacks agreement on the magnitude of the threat or how the world should respond to it. That subject, plus management of the economic impact, will be at the heart of future negotiations over the treaty to limit global emissions of greenhouse pollutants.
Since the working groups’ texts themselves were not subject to change, the debates were fought over the summary and overview of the massive report, and the arguing continued into the early hours today.
For a time, it appeared that the deliberations might go on the rocks when Brazil, backed by Mexico and Saudi Arabia, started a long debate over an acceptable title for the summary. They then began another debate over the document’s preface, and the work, punctuated by two recesses and whispered conferences, moved through the post-midnight hours.
Finally, at 3 a.m., the last of the amendments was accepted and the panel’s chairman, Bert Bolin, gaveled the conference to an end. Moments later he confessed that, about midnight, he had feared that it might be impossible to produce a final document at all.
The long-awaited assessment, mandated in 1988, will be submitted to the World Meteorological Conference in Geneva in early November and then to the United Nations General Assembly.
Preliminary plans for an opening round of negotiations in Washington, D.C., next February will be made at a September meeting in Geneva.
Izgrev Topkov, Bulgaria’s permanent representative to the United Nations’ environmental program, is expected to preside over the session and perhaps head the negotiations themselves.
Officials making preparations for the negotiations hope to have a framework treaty, and perhaps implementing protocols, ready for signing at the world environmental conference in Brazil in 1992.
Sources familiar with the planning said Mostafa Tolba, head of the U.N. environment program, hopes to arrange two-track negotiations to assure completion of at least a framework agreement by then, even if it takes longer to complete the more controversial implementing agreements.
Scientists say that carbon dioxide, produced from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal, helps trap warm air around the Earth, leading to a gradual warming of the atmosphere.
From the beginning of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change process two years ago, there have been sharp differences between the Europeans, who are ready to set dates and targets for reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, and a more cautious bloc led by the United States, which is the largest producer of carbon dioxide.
Those differences emerged again in the final debate over the report this week.
Over the last year and a half, the scientists and environmental officials put together three separate reports destined to be presented in one volume at the end of this conference, with the delegates adding a summary and overview of the final document.
One of the reports, dealing with ways to combat global warming, is based on the “response strategies study,” which was led by the United States and had been envisioned as the heart of the landmark undertaking.
Instead, the report based on the study evoked loud criticism from environmental activists and from Europeans.
“Rather than building on the science and impacts studies,” said Audubon Society Vice President Brooks Yeager, “the response strategies working group produced nothing but empty equivocation and vacillation.”
On the other side, coal industry lobbyists from both shores of the Atlantic had worked throughout the week to water down the strategy document.
With delegates set to depart today, Swedish linguists translating the debate into French, Spanish, Russian and English refused to work beyond 6 p.m. When a Friday session was suggested, delegates from the Soviet Union announced that they would not attend.
Without the benefit of professional translators, the session went on into the late evening--mainly in English, although some delegates lacked even rudimentary knowledge of the language.
The U.S. delegation, led by Fred Bernthal, deputy director of the National Science Foundation, had sought to place more emphasis on the scientific uncertainties, although the science panel itself acknowledged at the outset that “uncertainties attached to almost every aspect of the issue.”
The reason for the U.S. delegation’s call for numerous changes, Bernthal told delegates, was that the summary and overview prepared by the 10-nation drafting committee were “often presented with a greater degree of confidence than in the underlying reports.”