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Adjust the CO2 Pact

WHEN world leaders agreed in 1992 to cut their countries' carbon-dioxide emissions, they recognized that they might need to adjust the program along the way. The time has come for a mid-course correction - one that places more focus on helping developing countries reduce emissions.

In preparing for talks next week in Geneva relating to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the White House is finding that the short-term implementation plan it put together last October is insufficient to reduce CO2 emissions from the United States to 1990 levels by the year 2000. Meanwhile, Denmark advocates tougher measures, even at the expense of economic growth. Indeed, the Clinton administration is talking about joining ranks with European countries calling for more-stringent approaches.

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In the US, several factors appear to be at work in altering the outlook. Fuel consumption has grown in the face of low oil prices. Demand for electricity has strengthened during the economic recovery. And a congressional conference committee appears set to cut money for the US Department of Energy's conservation R&D programs by nearly 40 percent.

Until now, the administration's short-term action plan has relied heavily on voluntary compliance. Despite complaints from several environmental groups about this approach, it remains appropriate. The economic impact of widespread mandatory measures, given the existing timetable, could be too harsh; and if left unchecked or underchecked, emissions from third-world and former East-bloc countries could erase the impact of such reductions by Western industrial nations.

For now, Congress should fully fund federal conservation R&D programs; they represent the seedbed for technologies that will help the US meet its international environmental obligations. And while not ignoring the need to continue cleaning up emissions from Western industrial countries, the Geneva meeting should focus on ways to more effectively and economically transfer conservation technologies from North to South.

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