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Taking stock as Kyoto takes effect

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Today, after a seven-year Perils-of-Pauline journey to ratification, the famous and infamous Kyoto Protocol on global climate change takes effect. How important an accord is it likely to be?

Kyoto's entry into force is undeniably a substantial achievement. Global warming, after all, poses an enormous risk of heat-induced natural disasters in the decades ahead. The effort to limit global warming is an immense undertaking that requires countries to reduce their use of fossil fuels like oil and coal, and thus affects their entire economies.

Kyoto's contribution lies first in the agreement of most industrial countries to accept a mandatory cap on their greenhouse gas emissions - on average, a 5 percent cut below 1990 levels by 2012 - and second in its inclusion of innovative, US-proposed measures, such as the trading of emission permits, to dramatically lower the cost of emission cuts.

During the critical, three-cornered US-Europe-Japan negotiation that consumed the last several days of the Kyoto talks in December 1997, there was intense debate over how large an emission cut to require, but this debate was not nearly as vital as it seemed at the time.

The real point of Kyoto was never the size of these first emission cuts, but rather the setting of an initial price on carbon (by capping emissions), thereby forcing businesses and consumers to start considering greater energy efficiency and lower-carbon energy sources.

But Kyoto has not lived up to its original promise.

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