The sixth Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP6, collapsed in failure last weekend. In retrospect, the failure of negotiations that focused on cutting fossil-fuel emissions — which would have a powerful impact on economic development — and involved 181 nations was the most likely outcome. That does not mean that no agreement is possible. Leadership and vision can make it happen. And the growing evidence of global warming shows that some sort of accord is desperately needed.

COP6 was supposed to approve rules to implement the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the treaty designed to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming. According to that agreement, global emissions of those gases must decline 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The reductions are not uniform: Japan must cut its annual carbon-dioxide emissions by 6 percent from 1990 levels, the United States must trim them by 7 percent and the European Union by 8 percent.

The chief sticking point in the COP6 negotiations was the use of “sinks” — forests, plantations and reservoirs that absorb carbon dioxide — to count toward the emissions targets. The U.S., the world’s single largest producer of greenhouse gases, responsible for 24 percent of global emissions, has sought liberal allowances for its forests, as well as for rules that permit trading of “credits” among nations. The U.S. position was supported by Japan, Canada and Australia.

The EU was strongly opposed to the proposal, although European governments were by no means united on the question. The EU position reflected the political influence of Green parties, which favor strict measures to cut greenhouse gases and are less concerned with the economic impact they might have.

Mr. Jan Pronk, chairman of COP6, tabled a compromise that would allow the U.S. to use sinks to count for 60 million tons of carbon-based gas emissions, about 10 percent of the required cut, and half of what the U.S. wanted. Reportedly, American and European officials reached agreement on a deal, but that was then vetoed by other European representatives when the EU governments discussed the agreement among themselves. The failure of the two sides to agree on a compromise, despite an extended deadline, meant that the talks collapsed.

That is inexcusable. Global warming is no longer challenged, except by extremists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which consists of the world’s leading experts, has concluded that human behavior “has contributed substantially to observed warming over the last 50 years.” The U.S. National Research Council now believes that global warming is “undoubtedly real.” The U.S. Department of Energy anticipates that global emissions of carbon dioxide will grow by 79 percent in 2020 from 1995, due to an expected 75 percent increase in global energy consumption. As a result, total global carbon-dioxide output will almost double, from 5.84 billion tons in 1995 to 10.45 billion tons in 2020.

Some will say that no agreement is better than a bad agreement. That sounds good to purists, but it is small comfort to the millions of people living on islands and in low-lying areas who will be forced from their homes as seas rise. Scientists are uncertain about the impact on global climate patterns, but they anticipate the worst.

And now? The parties will continue negotiations at a U.N. meeting in Germany scheduled for next May and at COP7, which is to be held next October in Morocco. The U.N. hopes to ratify the protocol in 2002, but the odds of that are getting longer as a deal proves elusive. If Gov. George W. Bush claims the White House as anticipated, the U.S. is likely to become more hardline in its position and less inclined to compromise.

But that is by no means certain. In addition to the questions hanging over the U.S. election, business is not unified in its opposition to antiglobal-warming measures. One survey of 1,000 business executives worldwide shows more than one-third are favorable to the Kyoto Protocol; the rest are either opposed or indifferent. They rightly see environment-friendly business as a source of comparative advantage in the marketplace.

That is the way to “sell” the Kyoto Protocol. There will always be skeptics who question the validity of the science; there will always be hard-hearted souls who are indifferent to costs that will only be evident in the future. To convince them, leaders must reframe the debate. They must make the case that environmentally friendly policies are not only right, but profitable. That would square the circle and make COP7 a success. If the public is genuinely concerned about global warming, then it should make its preferences known. Profits can speak louder than protests.

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