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Goldilocks Global Climate

Earth has to be a greenhouse or we'd go the way of Mars. But, like Goldilocks and her porridge, we need a greenhouse that's just right: not too hot, not too cold.

The good news is that, at last, lots of the people capable of tackling the problem of too hot by virtue of accumulating greenhouse gases are now seriously buckling down to the task. The less than good news is that they are far from agreement on how much cutting back of greenhouse emissions (1) is doable without severe economic damage, and (2) gets the porridge just right.

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This week saw a worldwide flurry of activity, showing the new seriousness of governments and businesses. In Bonn, civil servants from more than 100 nations are trying to find a compromise on just what percentage industrialized nations must roll back their emissions by the year 2010. That's in preparation for a Dec. 1 treaty meeting in Kyoto, Japan.

Meanwhile, in Tokyo, officials of Honda, the car company, announced two new engines that could have a major impact on the global warming problem. One engine cuts fuel consumption to 70 miles per gallon. It will be available in Japan in late 1998, elsewhere in 1999. The second engine, using three catalyzers to improve an existing low-emissions model, reduces emissions to just 1/10th what is allowed by the most demanding restrictions in the world, California's pending zero emissions regulation. Honda thus improves on Saab's engine that produces exhaust cleaner than the air it breathes. Toyota, Ford, Daimler Benz, and other automakers are plunging into research. Such efforts are crucial because of the heavy role of cars in greenhouse emissions.

Norwegian technicians have developed methods for cutting down on emissions from offshore oil drilling and pumping. Utilities in North America have already cut 45 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from their generating plants, and are seeking ways to cut transmission line wastage and thus further reduce fuel burning.

Even OPEC nations, which have resisted any effort to raise taxes or otherwise cut back on consumption of oil products, this week heard kingpin Saudi Arabia announce it would cut down on flaring of natural gas at wellheads and refineries.

Despite this scatterfire burst of technological improvement, it seems likely major nations will settle on some low common denominator of cutbacks when they meet in Kyoto. Japan's suggestion of 5 percent below 1990 levels thus seems more likely than Europe's proposed 15 percent.

But the most promising plan of all is the nongovernment emissions-trading scheme that proved so effective in reducing acid-rain emissions from Midwestern US smokestacks. Seven major nations and big transnational industries are now drafting a version for greenhouse gas reductions. The virtue of this approach is that it would work for nations that were late starters and for those that have already made substantial cuts. For nations handicapped by dependence on high-emission fuels such as coal. For developing as well as already industrialized states. The US, UK, and Germany are pursuing this approach. Both India and China are reportedly interested.

That may prove the best recipe for persuading everyone to get Goldilocks's porridge just right.