Climate conference takes modest step forward as world waits for U.S., China, others

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Future meetings will review the workings of the Kyoto Protocol by 2008.

NAIROBI, Kenya -- The U.N. climate conference ended Friday with agreement on next steps toward negotiating future cuts in global-warming gases, a slow-paced timetable reflecting hopes the United States, China and other outsiders will eventually join the controls regime.

Delegates from the 165 member nations of the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, approved a schedule of talks unlikely to produce a deal on post-Kyoto emissions reductions before 2009.

In the face of mounting evidence of climate change, environmentalists called the timetable a modest step at best. Even some government ministers expressed disappointment.

There's a need "to inject greater urgency and momentum into the process of driving down global emissions," the environment ministers of Germany and Britain -- Ingmar Gabriel and David Miliband -- said in a joint statement.

The 1997 Kyoto pact obliges 35 industrial nations to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The United States and Australia are the only major industrial countries to reject that accord.

President Bush contends it would damage the U.S. economy and should have imposed cutbacks on poorer countries as well.

Under the key agreement here, future meetings will review the workings of the Kyoto Protocol by 2008 with an eye toward setting new quotas on carbon dioxide and other emissions after Kyoto expires.

The review -- a process that would assess the latest science and the size of necessary cutbacks -- is expected to be the basis for subsequent negotiations.

China, India and others have long resisted efforts to begin early talks in which they and other poor but fast-developing nations -- and growing energy consumers -- might be pressured to accept mandatory cutbacks in greenhouse-gas emissions. The final decision assured them the immediate process would not seek to negotiate cutbacks by developing nations.

Third World countries will likely resist emissions reductions until they see acceptance of mandatory caps by the United States -- a prospect some see as possible after Bush leaves office.

In a separate set of talks here, to be completed next year, the Kyoto member countries explored ways to bring the United States and other outsiders into a global emissions-reduction regime.

Gabriel, the German minister, told reporters that heads of state must instill "a new political momentum" into climate diplomacy next year, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who views climate as a priority, leads the G-8 group of industrial nations.

But the chief U.N. conference organizer said the deliberate pace of the next steps was necessary.

"It is very important to give that discussion on the future the time it needs," said Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the U.N. climate treaty secretariat.

Activists hope January's Democratic takeover of Congress may lead to more forceful U.S. action on global warming, and that next February's Fourth Assessment Report by a U.N. network of climatologists, the first in six years, will help pressure all nations to curb emissions.

Scientists say continued warming is already melting glaciers worldwide, shrinking the Arctic and Greenland ice caps and heating up the oceans, raising sea levels.

Meantime, carbon dioxide continues to accumulate in the atmosphere, reaching a record 379.1 parts per million in 2005, more than 35 percent higher than concentrations before the industrial age, the World Meteorological Organization reported this month.

Some Kyoto-obligated countries will have to struggle to meet their 2012 targets under that relatively modest pact. But European leaders say reductions will have to be much larger -- 50 percent lower emissions by 2050 -- to stave off dangerous climate change.

Emissions by the United States, the world's biggest emitter, have grown by 16 percent since 1990. And China is expected to overtake the United States as the No. 1 carbon dioxide emitter before 2010, the International Energy Agency reports.

Organizers cited secondary successes during the two-week Nairobi conference, chief among them improved organization for the Adaptation Fund, intended to assist developing countries in coping with encroaching seas and other impacts of climate change. That fund currently holds only $3 million, however.

A Kenyan environmentalist spoke for many Africans when she lamented a lack of progress here.

Sharon Looremetta said her nomadic Maasai people already are stricken by cattle-killing drought attributable to climate change, but the countries spewing out global-warming gases are doing too little to help.

"Most major issues have been shelved until next year," she said. "We don't drive 4x4 cars, we don't go on vacation by airplane, but we do suffer from climate change."

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