Environmentalist Claim Global Bid to Reduce 'Greenhouse Gases' Instead Cuts Expectations


After a good night's sleep and some sober contemplation, environmental activists Tuesday conceded the Kyoto Protocol adopted a day earlier falls far short of the lofty goals for fighting global warming contained in the original proposal.

While still pleased that the pact could be rescued at all despite opposition from the Bush administration, analysts warned that the compromises made to win the support of other key nations would reduce expectations more than they would cut "greenhouse gas" emissions.

Allowing countries to buy and sell pollution quotas and offset emissions with carbon-absorbing forests means the cut in output of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases will be only about 2% below 1990 levels instead of the original aim to reduce them by 5.2%.

And that scaled-back goal assumes that every country will meet its individual targets. That may be optimistic, now that harsh financial penalties for noncompliance have been deleted from the protocol's text.

Also, with emissions from the United States, which is outside the agreement, having increased during the last decade and showing no signs of cutting back, worldwide emissions are expected to be above 1990 levels when the deadline for meeting the first Kyoto commitments passes in 2012.

One major concession made during a 48-hour negotiating marathon that ended with adoption of the protocol Monday was the allowance for "carbon sinks."

By giving credit to Japan, Canada, Australia and Russia for their vast farmland and forests, each will be able to emit more than specified in the plan first defined in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. That widened loophole also would make the U.S. target easier to reach if the Bush administration or its successor decides to return to the Kyoto process.

European states fought against the more liberal credit for land planted with carbon-absorbing vegetation after 1990, noting the trees and plants could be cut, mitigating the benefits.

The reduction targets set out in this first phase of the agreement apply only to 39 countries with the highest standards of living and highest greenhouse gas outputs. Developing countries will be included in future stages. Some environmentalists warned that the forestry offsets could encourage Third World countries to cut down old-growth and rain forests now so they can replant and win lucrative emission trading credits later.

"The agreement provides credits for the creation of plantation forests in developing countries, thus creating an incentive for countries to liquidate their native forests and receive credit for subsequent reforestation," said Mike Coda, director of the Nature Conservancy.

If a country's fossil fuel emissions are below the caps imposed on them by Kyoto, they can sell that surplus capacity to countries unable to meet their targets.

Greenpeace criticized the weakened emission caps as "Kyoto Lite," and the adopted version of the protocol as "a lost opportunity."

"This agreement here will probably permit, if all the loopholes are used, emissions to increase rather than decrease" by 2012, said Bill Hare, a spokesman for the international environmental movement.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council argued that the long journey to greenhouse gas reduction had to begin with one small step. They say the focus now should be to bring the United States on board.

"While the deal reached in Bonn is by no means perfect, it is far better than the alternative of a collapse in these negotiations," said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council urged those disparaging the diluted initiative to keep in mind the much higher price of failure.

"There was no magic to the numbers decided in Kyoto. Everyone knew that was a first step and that, if it went up a little or down a little, it wouldn't matter," he said of the figures applied to industrialized countries for carbon reductions. "It's no surprise that we compromised on sinks, and I don't judge the integrity of the protocol in such negative terms."

Environmentalists said the big challenge is not such details but getting the protocol ratified by parliaments. It becomes a legally binding treaty only after it is ratified by at least 55 countries whose collective emissions account for 55% or more of those from the industrialized states.

With the United States refusing to consider it, and ratification facing a tough fight in Japan, supporters will have to lobby intensively.

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