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At Bali climate change meeting, a hard look at Kyoto

Old climate change standards offer lessons as diplomats consider a successor pact.

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Efforts to start two years of talks aimed at crafting a new global pact on climate change enter their most intense phase this week. Ministers from more than 180 countries arrive Wednesday to give final shape to a framework for the talks, which could begin as early as next June.

But even as they look to the future, ministers also will be dealing with the present – giving a final burnish to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol before turning it loose next year. The protocol's first – and perhaps only – enforcement period begins Jan. 1 and runs through 2012.

UN officials here say they are cautiously optimistic that industrial countries as a group will meet – and perhaps beat – the pact's goal for trimming greenhouse-gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide.

But critics of the 10-year-old agreement have already written it off as a failure, even before it takes full force. To some, Kyoto's projected results are based on accounting tricks and fundamental economic changes that predate the agreement. At issue is how the structure of the original accord will shape future agreements.

Critics and proponents agree that from the climate's perspective, Kyoto's impact will get lost in the weeds. Under the agreement, industrial-country participants must reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of more than 5 percent relative to 1990 levels. But that will have a negligible effect on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Moreover, compared with 1990 levels, carbon-dioxide emissions from industrial countries are at an all-time high, observes Yvo de Boer, who heads the secretariat overseeing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – the 1992 treaty that gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol. Rising emissions "would give you the impression that things are going completely in the wrong direction," he acknowledges.

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