U.S. backs Kyoto Protocol in theory, not with promises

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To no one’s surprise, three days of discussion on the scenic banks of Lake Biwa did nothing to jar the United States into pledging to put the Kyoto Protocol into force by 2002.

But top U.S. delegation members did characterize the event as a success and felt the meeting of the Group of Eight environment heads laid a solid base for the July G8 summit in Okinawa.

“This was an extremely useful meeting,” said David Sandalow, secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs.

A veteran of the Kyoto Protocol negotiations at COP3 — the Third Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — in December 1997 and the most experienced delegate in the U.S. group, Sandalow said the confab was a good “opportunity to exchange views and compare agendas and priorities, and also, in part, to develop the relationships that will be important in negotiations in the months and years ahead.”

The talks were also a stepping stone and opportunity for environmental leaders to air their views as a prelude to intense discussions that will likely take place at COP6, to be held at The Hague, Netherlands, in November.

Largely recognized as the biggest key to success at COP6, the U.S. has taken a noncommittal position maintaining that its ratification of the treaty hinges on the “meaningful participation” of developing nations.

However, the concept of meaningful participation, and thus what exactly it will take for the U.S. to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, remains vague.

“It means serious steps by developing countries to abate their emissions,” Sandalow said. “For different countries it will mean different things. Exactly what constitutes meaningful participation will vary, depending on factors such as GDP (gross domestic product), the size of a country and its role in the convention process.”

U.S. delegates maintained that the biggest obstacle to committing to putting the protocol into force by 2002 is the U.S. Senate.

The other G8 countries — except Canada, which also cited domestic legislative procedures in not agreeing to the 2002 deadline — are adamant about setting a firm date. They favor 2002 because it marks 10 years since the climate convention was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Pledging support without the Senate’s stamp of approval could be “counterproductive” Sandalow said, and might leave Senate members — two-thirds of whom need to approve the treaty — feeling slighted.

“Members of the Senate have made it clear to us that they feel that would undercut their constitutional prerogative to approve this treaty.”

But other delegates said that sentiment among senators has slightly softened, so that now the most vocal opponents to the protocol no longer deny the need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases but maintain that the protocol is a flawed instrument.

In the closing session, Michael McCabe, leader of the U.S. delegation and deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, echoed other delegates’ positive impressions of the conference and further elaborated on putting the protocol into force by 2002.

McCabe said steps taken by developing countries, including China and India, have been encouraging, but: “We felt that to tie ourselves to the date 2002 was unduly restrictive and could be seen as an affront to the Senate and may in fact jeopardize the opportunity to ratify the Kyoto treaty in the U.S. Senate.

“I think the language we worked out (in the communique) is good language,” McCabe added. “It encourages us to move forward, and that is the position that will be pursued by the United States.”

Prescott’s help urged

Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori called on British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who is also in charge of environmental affairs, to cooperate in ensuring the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to curb global warming can take effect at an early date, government officials said.

Mori told Prescott, earlier this week that he hopes the upcoming Sixth Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change can bring the protocol into force, the officials said.

Prescott said the meeting over the weekend of environment heads from the Group of Eight major nations, including himself, at Lake Biwa, marked a big step forward toward implementing the protocol, they said.

The Kyoto Protocol, adopted in the ancient capital in December 1997, targets global warming caused by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Scientists say the gases cause a rise in the Earth’s temperature by trapping heat in the atmosphere.

The protocol legally obliges developed countries to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by between 2008 and 2012.

Mori also told Prescott, “The most important task in politics in the 21st century is to take back the negative elements of the past 100 years.”