Global Warming Conference Opens

A crucial U.N. conference opened today hoping to bridge sharp differences on how to reduce greenhouse gases that threaten to bring cataclysmic changes in the Earth’s climate.

Under the imperative banner “Work it out,” some 10,000 government bureaucrats, scientists, environmentalists and members of the business community from 150 countries began two weeks of meetings, lobbying and tough negotiations over how to comply with an international treaty to roll back emissions of heat-trapping gases to less than what they were 10 years ago.

Flooding, Elections in Background

Recent flooding on the European continent and Britain, which some scientists attribute partially to global warming, highlighted the consequences of changing weather patterns and added to the sense of urgency in reaching an agreement.

Delegates also were closely watching the political turmoil in the U.S. presidential election, noting the opposing views of Democrat Al Gore, who has supported emissions reductions, and Republican George W. Bush, who has voiced strong reservations about U.S. promises to help control global warming.

Robert Watson, head of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set the challenge before the delegates with a stark review of the earth’s climate, which he said had been stable since the last Ice Age until well into the 20th century.

“The weight of scientific evidence suggests that the observed changes in the Earth’s climate are, at least in part, due to human activities,” he said, in a speech attended by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

In the next 100 years, he said, deserts will become drier, crops will decrease in areas like Africa and Latin America, forests will become more vulnerable to pests and disease, coral reefs will die and rising seas will cause the displacement of tens of millions of people.

Three years ago in Kyoto, Japan, governments drew up targets and a rough outline for rolling back emissions of carbon-based gases by a total of 5.2 percent from the 1990 level. Europe agreed to cut emissions of these greenhouse gases by 8 percent, the United States by 7 percent and Japan by 6 percent.

Differences Over Pollution Trading

Sharp clashes were expected between the United States and Europe over key issues of trading in “credits” that would reduce a country’s obligation to meet its own targets by buying the surplus of another country that produced fewer emissions than it is allotted.

The U.S. delegation, mindful of future problems in ratifying a treaty by a cost-conscious Congress, will argue for unfettered trading that it says will reduce costs while meeting overall global targets. Europe wants to cap trading at 50 percent of a country’s obligations.

The U.S. chief delegate, Undersecretary of State Frank Loy, has called limiting credits “wrong-headed” and “anti-environment.” Both sides are trying to line up allies for the backstage negotiations. The U.S. position recently won the backing of 14 Latin American countries.

The United States also wants an open-ended agreement allowing countries to offset their own emissions against investments in pollution-reducing projects in other countries, such as planting new forests that soak up carbon dioxide from the air.

In Bolivia, American and British companies have paid a reported $10 million to buy out loggers and preserve a forest that will be incorporated into an adjacent national park, hoping to earn credit for the greenhouse gas absorbed by the trees.

Environmentalists: Trading Is Cheating

Environmentalists call such mechanisms “loopholes” that allow large polluting countries to evade their obligations and continue polluting.

“Claiming credit for carbon stored in trees is a blatant attempt by some countries to cheat on their Kyoto commitments,” said Bill Hare, of Greenpeace.