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Global cause. The Kyoto Protocol could take effect next year.

World Starts Taming the Greenhouse

To the surprise of many, representatives of 178 countries agreed early this morning on a strategy to slow down the growing greenhouse effect. Seventeen hundred diplomats established how, in a complex accounting of greenhouse gas emissions and uptakes, countries will receive credit for fighting warming. The agreement gives countries some flexibility in meeting their goals--an issue that led to a breakdown in negotiations in The Hague last fall--but it lacks any obligation for developing countries to reduce their emissions, as the United States wanted.

The new agreement is widely seen as the best that could be expected under the circumstances. After President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol this spring, "countries had to rethink whether they wanted to do this," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Arlington, Virginia, an organization dedicated to reducing greenhouse emissions. "They decided they did, and they made the needed compromises."

The compromises came in a range of policy issues. Developed countries got some of the flexibility they wanted: For instance, they can purchase emission credits from countries able to cut emissions beyond their required amount, or receive credit for emission reductions achieved through a project like a hydroelectric dam in a developing country. Countries can also gain credit by growing forests that soak up carbon dioxide.

No compromise was reached in one key area: In order to bring Japan on board, the delegates decided to determine later just how countries will be compelled to comply with the protocol. The system will take effect when 55 countries accounting for 55% of the industrialized countries' 1990 emissions have signed on.

Greenpeace has dubbed the current version of the protocol "Kyoto Lite," but that's not all bad, say some observers. "They've left the thing sufficiently loose that everyone's willing to join hands," says journalist-in-residence John Anderson of Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C., economics think tank. "Everyone needs to get real-world experience with what the costs are going to be before you can press hard."

A final text to be worked out this week in Bonn is expected to be approved at a meeting in late October in Marrakech, Morocco. The protocol could be in effect by the 10th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit, next July.

Related sites

The Bonn conference Web page