The Kyoto Protocol on climate change takes effect Wednesday after more than seven years of difficult and complex negotiations aimed at reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases. Perhaps future generations will remember Feb. 16, 2005, as the day the world launched a determined drive to reverse the potentially calamitous trend of global warming.

The protocol, adopted in Kyoto in late 1997 by signatories to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, sets binding numerical targets for industrialized nations’ output of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases. The Kyoto agreement is testimony to the growing realization in the world that the traditional patterns of energy production and consumption must change.

Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels — oil and coal in particular — have driven the engine of economic growth, but in the process they have released enormous quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. The increasing threat of global warming — now widely recognized — makes it imperative to reduce CO2 emissions on a sustainable basis. The finiteness of underground energy resources also makes it essential to create a more energy-efficient society.

The Kyoto Protocol represents a hard-won compromise that attempts to reconcile conflicting interests among both industrialized countries and between developed and developing countries, as well as those of oil-producing and poor countries, to the common cause of protecting the global environment. It has the blessing of about 140 nations.

The necessity of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions seems evident from the abnormal weather patterns that have appeared frequently since the 1990s. In fact, scientific data for the past 20 years make it clear that climate changes resulting from rises in atmospheric temperature pose grave threats to the global environment. Under the circumstances, the protocol may well represent, as some say, “the best compromise.”

Nevertheless, it is a flawed agreement. The biggest flaw is that the United States, the largest emitter, is not party to the protocol, from which it withdrew in 2001. No climate change treaty can be truly effective without the active participation of a country that accounts for a quarter of the world’s output of greenhouse gases.

A second defect is that China — which discharges far more polluting gases than Japan — has no obligations to reduce its emissions because the protocol excludes “developing countries.” Emissions from developed countries obliged to reduce emissions — including Japan and European states — make up one-third of the global total. With the U.S. opting out, it is impossible to achieve the protocol’s overall goal of slashing the industrialized world’s emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels in the five years between 2008 and 2012.

The irony is that the protocol is coming into force because of, rather than in spite of, the U.S. boycott. Had the country engaged in nuts-and-bolts negotiations on enabling rules, the talks probably would have collapsed, given the wide differences that exist between the U.S. and other industrial countries. It was Russia’s last-minute ratification that has saved the protocol.

The challenge for Japan is to strengthen domestic measures to cut its emissions by 6 percent from 1990 in the five-year period. As things now stand, that appears to be a tall order. Output in fiscal 2003 was up 8 percent from 1990, due partly to the prolonged suspension on the operation of nuclear power plants. Emissions from cars, factories, buildings and homes continue to rise markedly. At this rate, the nation will have to cut its greenhouse-gas output by 14 percent in order to achieve the 6 percent target.

To meet that objective, the government must implement a variety of measures, including wider use of energy-saving equipment (heat-pump water heaters, household fuel cells), publication of emissions data and introduction of the so-called carbon tax. The government’s action plan now in the works, if it is to succeed, must be supported by both industries and consumers. It is also vital to utilize the “Kyoto mechanisms” that allow for flexibility in emissions-reduction efforts — such as “clean” energy cooperation between developed and developing countries and trade in emissions credits.

Scientists say CO2 emissions must be cut in half by the middle of this century in order to prevent a further warming of the atmosphere. The Kyoto Protocol is a major step in this direction, but it marks only the beginning of a long battle against climate change — a drawn-out process of emissions reduction that must continue well beyond 2012. This process cannot work effectively, however, without the participation of the U.S. as well as major developing countries such as China.

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