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US Seen as Slow to Join Cleanup of Earth's Air

UN wants tough standard on global warming

Somewhere amid the jargon and the acronyms lies the hope for a cleaner world.

At least since the 18th-century Industrial Revolution, humans have been linked with pollution of the natural environment. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is intended to break that link. At a just-concluded meeting here, the convention may have taken a step toward that goal.

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The convention is working on an agreement to control global warming by cutting emissions of so-called greenhouse gases by the early 21st century.

The failure of the United States delegation to set forth concrete targets and timetables in its proposal drew sharp criticism here, not only from environmentalists but from other delegations, too.

The European Union claimed the high ground by setting forth a specific target: a 15 percent reduction of emissions from 1990 levels by the year 2010. But this proposal also drew fire: It is a negotiating position rather than a commitment, and it relies on trade-offs among its member states, some of which would be allowed to increase their emissions. A 40 percent allowable increase for Portugal, in particular, raised eyebrows.

"You have to wonder about these numbers," a Japanese official observes. Another delegate says the Europeans are "very hypocritical - using smoke and mirrors."

From the environmentalists to the American delegation, and even among other delegations, came expressions of concern about whether the Republican-controlled US Congress can be induced to ratify the binding agreement the UNFCCC wants to produce.

Although environmental protection is seen as popular among Americans, a US official says, "I'm worried about the US - we need to be doing more to educate our public, our children, and our grandchildren" about climate change and other such issues.

He contrasts the picture in European countries, "where all the schoolchildren know about Agenda 21, for instance," a program growing out of the 1992 UN summit on the environment in Rio de Janeiro. Some of the sharpest critics of the American delegation agree with him on this point.

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The Bonn meeting was to agree on a text to be used as the basis for negotiations. That goal was achieved. Raul Estrada-Oyuela of Argentina, chairman of the session, pronounced himself "99 percent certain that we'll get a protocol," or binding agreement, at the summit planned for December in Kyoto, Japan.

But procedural progress is not to be confused with substantive progress.

The American delegation has put forth a detailed position ("from soup to nuts," as one senior US official puts it) on how greenhouse gases should be controlled. "What we don't have are actual numbers and time frames," he adds.

That's the problem, in the eyes of many critics. Even Ambassador Estrada-Oyuela, commenting tactfully on the remaining "differences among the countries," sounds more hopeful than confident when he says, "The US has 10 teams working on exact figures, and we expect to have numbers soon."

John Shlaes, executive director of the Global Climate Coalition, made up largely of representatives of the American oil, coal, and auto industries, says his group, too, is waiting for the numbers from Uncle Sam. He stresses the need for "solid scientific analysis" and warns, "Hasty action could bind the world's governments to agreements that aren't beneficial."

He adds, "We need to see the US analysis, and the costs in jobs and lifestyles" of any efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Kirsty Hamilton of Greenpeace International criticizes some of the national delegations, particularly the Americans, for being too close to their fossil-fuel industries. "It's clear that what we've got is a battle for the carbon economy," she says, rather than efforts to support emerging environmentally friendly technologies.

The negotiating text agreed to here will be further refined, edited, and translated into the official languages of the UN.

As of June 1, it is to be available as the basis for two more rounds of negotiations in Bonn - one in the summer and one in the fall - as well as countless side meetings where the real deals will have to be made if a formal agreement is to be ready by December.

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