THE HAGUE, The Netherlands -- The United States has taken a tough stance regarding the compromises it is willing to make in this week's international climate change negotiations in the Netherlands. The U.S. position threatens to alienate the support of some environmental groups, which could be crucial to the successful implementation of the agreement.
Environmental officials from about 160 governments are represented at the sixth session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which opened Monday at The Hague. The negotiators are working out last minute details regarding how the convention, also known as the Kyoto Protocol, will be implemented and enforced.
A major sticking point will be the differences in opinion between the United States (U.S.) and European Union (EU) on which mechanisms should be used to reduce emissions of global warming gases such as carbon dioxide.
At least 15 EU countries pledged last week to present a united front in support of strong, enforceable rules for compliance with the emissions reductions goals set by the convention. Specifically, these countries want participating nations to agree to real, verifiable cuts in actual greenhouse gas emissions from factories, utilities, vehicles and other sources.
The U.S., along with Canada, Australia, Japan and Norway, is pushing for a variety of controversial methods that U.S. negotiators claim could prove just as useful in reducing the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment.
But some scientists and many environmentalists say the mechanisms supported by the U.S. - the largest single nation source of greenhouse gases on the planet - would not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and could, in some cases, even make the problem of global warming worse.
Last week, a coalition of four national and international environmental groups released a report, "Legacy of Loopholes," that is strongly critical of the U.S. position.
The report warns that U.S. supported mechanisms, such as emissions trading, carbon sinks and the so called Clean Development Mechanism, could hamper efforts to combat global warming and to garner international support for the final climate change treaty.
"People around the world want their leader in The Hague to bring home real reductions in carbon pollution - not paper cuts with paper tons," said Jennifer Morgan, director of the World Wildlife Fund's climate change campaign. The World Wildlife Fund, one of the authors of the report, is urging U.S. President Bill Clinton to "bring home a treaty that cuts global warming pollution in the U.S."
The report analyzes three "loopholes":
The Kyoto Protocol contains a provision for international trading of tons of greenhouse gases to reduce the costs of reducing global warming pollution. Under this mechanism, nations that meet their emissions goals earlier than required under the treaty could sell "credits" to nations that are having trouble meeting their deadlines.
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Frank Loy, who heads the U.S. delegation at the climate talks, testified before the U.S. Senate earlier this year that one of the Clinton administration's main goals is to make sure that the final agreement is cost effective.
That is why U.S. negotiators have insisted on inclusion of market based mechanisms such as emissions trading, Loy said.
Loy said that a well designed emissions trading system will "cut the cost of reducing greenhouse gases by allowing the marketplace to identify the most cost effective reductions, thereby making efficient use of limited global resources."
The U.S. and some other nations support so called "hot air trading," which would allow Russia and other former Soviet states to sell emissions credits that they have accumulated because their economic collapse has drastically reduced their fossil fuel use. The U.S. could therefore delay its own emissions cuts by buying credits from a country that has not taken any concrete steps to make long term reductions in pollution.
The U.S. hopes to achieve about 34 percent of its required emissions reductions through emissions trading.
Forests and other ecosystems are reservoirs, or sinks, for carbon dioxide (CO2), which they absorb as they grow. The U.S. hopes to meet as much as 36 percent of its emissions cuts through reforestation projects at home and overseas.
Last week, environmental groups released two reports indicating that carbon sinks could, in some cases, even increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Mature, old growth forests - which absorb less CO2 than growing vegetation - could be threatened by the drive to plant fast growing, plantation style trees to mop up CO2.
But many scientists now say these carbon sinks do not remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to compensate for actual U.S. emissions. In addition, forests will release their stored carbon if they are damaged by fires, drought, insect infestation or other natural problems.
A U.S. State Department report submitted to the United Nations calculates that about 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide is absorbed annually in U.S. forests and in soil used for crops and livestock grazing. U.S. negotiators say this carbon sink accounts for almost half of the annual carbon emissions reductions the nation would be expected to make beginning in 2008 under the treaty.
CLEAN DEVELOPMENT MECHANISM
The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows industrialized countries to meet some of their emissions targets by investing in emissions reduction projects in developing countries. The U.S. advocates rules that could promote environmentally unsound technologies, such as large scale hydroelectric and nuclear power.
The U.S., which hopes to meet about 14 percent of emissions reductions through the CDM, seeks credit for its support of many projects that are already planned or underway - projects that the developing countries would undertake despite the U.S. need for credits.
With such rules, critics say the CDM would fail to promote distributed renewable energy, energy efficiency and reductions in pollution from burning coal and other fossil fuels.
These three loopholes could account for as much as 84 percent of the total 500 to 600 million metric tons of carbon that the U.S. needs to reduce to meet its treaty target of a seven percent reduction of its 1990 emissions levels.
U.S. COULD SLIP EXTRA EMISSIONS THROUGH LOOPHOLES
If the U.S. gets its way, environmental groups charge that greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. could increase by 18 percent from 1990 levels - while still technically meeting its reduction targets.
"Accounting gimmicks may fool bureaucrats, but they will not fool Mother Nature," said Alden Meyer, director of government relations for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The climate treaty must make real cuts of real pollution or the severe storms and other impacts that we are already starting to see will only get worse."
In an address broadcast over the Internet on Saturday, President Clinton called for a comprehensive new clean air strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants. The President also announced the completion of the first comprehensive assessment of the potential impacts of climate change across the U.S., available online at: http://www.gcrio.org/NationalAssessment/
Clinton called for national emissions standards for four pollutants, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. Electricity generation is the largest source of air pollution in the U.S., releasing more than two thirds of the nation's sulfur dioxide, and about one third of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury emissions.
These standards would be met in part by emissions trading among U.S. utilities, the president said.
Clinton also reiterated his opposition to any restrictions on international emissions trading under the Kyoto Protocol, and his support for carbon sinks and the Clean Development Mechanism.
Regardless of the final form that the Kyoto Protocol takes, the U.S. Senate may still oppose ratification of the treaty. Although the U.S. has signed the treaty, it cannot take effect until it is ratified by a majority of the countries responsible for most of the world's greenhouse gas pollution - including the U.S.
Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said the newly divided Senate, which the recent elections left split between Democrats and Republicans, will not "even come close" to ratifying the accord.
In an interview with James Glassman released Monday on Tech Central Station (http://www.TechCentralStation.com), Senator Hagel said there is no way that the treaty will be approved by the required two-thirds majority of the Senate.
"I don't see how ... the United States Senate, even in its closely divided form, even come(s) close to ratifying this treaty," said Hagel, who will be attending the meetings in The Hague in his capacity as chair of the Senate Climate Change Observer Group. "Under no conditions do I see this Kyoto Protocol - and I think [Vice President Al] Gore would agree with this - even come close to getting 67 votes in the United States Senate. I mean, that is not even debatable."
Without Senate ratification, the Kyoto Protocol would be essentially unenforceable in the U.S. - particularly if its final form contains so many loopholes that the treaty loses the support of the environmental groups that have been the agreement's strongest proponents.
"The U.S. is the world's biggest global warming polluter and is shirking our responsibility to cut our pollution," said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program. "The U.S. should not be allowed to pollute more because our forests absorb some of the carbon pollution we emit."
"The U.S. must act now to cut our auto and power plant emissions to become the world's leader in cutting our global warming pollution," Becker concluded, "instead of the world leader in creative accounting and passing the buck."
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