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Turning Down The Heat

To their surprise, negotiators in Kyoto hammer out a historic pact to curb global warming. But will it ever go into effect

By Michael D. Lemonick

(TIME, December 22) -- In the end, it came down to a single percentage point. For more than a week, negotiators at the Kyoto climate-change conference had been haggling over the terms of a treaty that might at last begin to do something concrete about the looming worldwide threat of global warming. Delegates had cajoled and harangued and reasoned with one another, trying to decide who would have to cut back, and how much, on pollutants that are heating the globe. By last Tuesday night, after a whirlwind 14-hour visit to Kyoto by Al Gore, the U.S.'s most prominent environmentalist, they were almost there. All the world's industrialized nations had agreed to firm targets for reducing six different "greenhouse" gases.

All but Japan, that is. The Japanese had been assigned the most modest goal: cut emissions 6% below 1990 levels by the year 2012, compared with 7% for the U.S. and 8% for the 15 nations of the European Union (E.U.). But the Japanese wouldn't budge. Five percent was their limit. So the U.S. delegation called Washington to report the impasse, and at 2 a.m. an exhausted Gore, still jet-lagged from his flight from Kyoto, got on the phone with Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Gore praised Hashimoto for Japan's leadership in playing host to the conference and then pointed out how bad it would look for the host country to derail the agreement over a measly percentage point.

It worked. The Japanese caved, and the conference was on its way to an accord that was as unexpected as it is historic. Almost no one going into the meeting was optimistic about its outcome. There wasn't much disagreement about the basic problem: it's now clear that carbon dioxide and other gases generated by human agriculture and industry are trapping the sun's heat. And while nobody knows for certain what the consequences will be, the worst-case scenarios envisioned by scientists include dangerously rising seas, more powerful storms, drastically altered weather patterns and even outbreaks of tropical diseases in places where they've never before been seen.

Despite the enormity of these potential disasters, the campaign against global warming seemed to be over before it had even started. Too many hostile factions had arrived at the talks with conflicting and entrenched positions. No one could have predicted that when it was all over, a jubilant Johny Lahure, Luxembourg's Environment Minister and one of Europe's top negotiators, would stand up and say, "Today there are no losers and only one winner, the environment."

Not that everyone would agree. What happened in Kyoto will not, in and of itself, stave off global warming. The treaty now known as the Kyoto Protocol dictates that by 2012 the average output of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide--generated mostly by the burning of fossil fuels in factories, cars and power plants--must be reduced 5.2% below where it was in 1990. But it would take a 60% reduction to make much of a dent in the greenhouse gases that have been building up in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution.

Beyond that, the Kyoto accord doesn't require developing countries like China and India -- themselves major polluters -- to reduce their emissions at all. To complicate matters further, the treaty will not take effect until it has been ratified -- and in the U.S., Senate Republicans have made it clear that that they have no intention of letting that happen. Even if they did, Congress would then have to approve tax incentives and other costly measures to bring the U.S. into compliance. And that would require the even more conservative House to go along.

Given the long list of caveats, it's tempting to think the Kyoto negotiators have badly overstated the significance of their treaty. Yet even some environmentalists, despite having hoped for a much tougher agreement, were surprisingly upbeat. "It's disappointing in terms of what it'll do for the environment," says Jennifer Morgan, who attended the meeting as a representative of the Climate Action Network. "But we have a legally binding document. That's a start."

For the first week of the conference, even a start seemed well out of reach. E.U. delegates, representing countries with especially powerful green parties, had arrived in Kyoto with an ambitious proposal: industrial nations should cut their emissions 15% below 1990 levels by the year 2010. Easy for them to say: Europe relies heavily on emission-free nuclear power. Besides, the collapse of the former East Germany's antiquated industries and a massive switchover in Great Britain from coal to natural gas during the 1990s have given Europe a big head start toward that goal.

Meanwhile the U.S. has been riding an economic boom that has driven energy use and emissions steadily upward. By 2000 Americans will be pumping out 8% more greenhouse gases than in 1990. Reversing that trend would be tough in any case, but politics makes it even tougher. An alliance of industry leaders and Republicans loudly insists that making Americans adopt costly energy-saving technology could put the economy into a crash dive. At the very least, they say, a global-warming treaty must impose strict cutbacks on poor, developing countries as well as on rich, industrial nations. Otherwise, they argue, the U.S. will face unfair competition from foreign corporations. Indeed, the Senate voted unanimously last summer to reject any treaty that let developing nations off the hook.

At the same time, the Clinton Administration faced pressure from environmentalists and foreign governments that argued that as the greatest greenhouse-gas emitter on the planet, the U.S. should take the lead in cutting back -- a position the President himself took seriously. In the end, Clinton split the difference. Chief U.S. negotiator Stuart Eizenstat, Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs, arrived in Kyoto with a proposal to cut emissions back to 1990 levels, no lower, between 2008 and 2012.

The U.S. also wanted developing countries to make cuts of their own, and proposed a system of emissions trading that would let the market, not government, decide how to achieve cutbacks. A country that had overshot its goals, for example, could sell its excess percentage points to a nation that had fallen short. And a company that modernized a plant in another country would get to take credit itself for the resulting savings.

But Europe and many developing countries rejected emissions trading and across-the-board cutbacks, and no one would budge on what the goals should be. For a week, more than 2,200 delegates from 161 countries spun their rhetorical wheels in a grueling series of meetings, while about 6,500 nonvoting observers and reporters watched in dismay.

Then, last Monday, Gore flew into town for a marathon of speeches and meetings designed to get the talks moving at last. In public, Gore said he had urged U.S. delegates "to show increased negotiating flexibility" -- a signal that America was ready to cut some sort of deal. Just how far the Administration was willing to go, however, wasn't clear until the very last minute. Even as Air Force Two was landing in Kyoto, Gore was on the phone with White House officials trying to nail down what the strategy should be. They finally agreed that Gore would quietly give U.S. negotiators permission to move to a 2%-to-3% reduction from 1990 levels.

That, says the White House, broke a logjam. Suddenly the contest was no longer a battle of wills between the U.S. and the E.U. "By going a bit lower," says a U.S. official, "we became fully in sync with the Japanese." And with Japan and the U.S. united, and Russia and other nations signing on as well, the E.U. now faced a bloc that included most of the developed world.

Still, it took some behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get the two sides together. Clinton had been telling British Prime Minister Tony Blair for months that he might need last-minute help in closing the deal. That moment apparently came on Tuesday afternoon last week, when Clinton called Blair to enlist his assistance. The British, says the White House official, were "much more realistic and open-minded" than other European governments.

With Britain behind it, the deal was nearly set: the E.U. would cut emissions their 8%, the Japanese 6% and the U.S. a nominal 7%. (Administration officials insist that the most realistic accounting scheme makes the actual cutbacks lower; what's called 7% in Kyoto, they say, is really 3% at most.) After Gore twisted Hashimoto's arm, those were the numbers that stuck. Exhausted negotiators took an additional 10 hours to iron out the details--as Japanese workers hovered impatiently, waiting to set up for a trade show at Kyoto's International Conference Hall--but the American negotiating team never had to come back with a new proposal.

That's not to say the U.S. got everything it wanted. Thanks to tough conditions demanded by both the Europeans and the developing world, key details of the emissions-trading proposal never did get worked out. The delegates also couldn't agree on what sanctions might be levied against countries that fail to meet their targets. And a clause saying that developing countries could voluntarily sign on to emission-reduction goals was still too strong for China and others to swallow -- a problem that, if not solved, will make ratification by the U.S. Senate next to impossible.

Negotiators hope that all these issues can be resolved at a follow-up conference in Buenos Aires a year from now. Meanwhile -- as the politicians jockey for position -- cars, factories and power plants continue to pour hundreds of millions of tons of greenhouse gases every year into the ever thickening atmosphere.

--Reported by Irene M. Kunii/Kyoto and Karen Tumulty/Washington

What The Treaty Requires:

Developed Countries must cut emissions of carbon dioxide and five other gases an average of 5.2% by 2012

Developing Countries don't have to make any comparable cuts unless they choose to

Emissions Trading would permit countries that beat their targets to sell excess reductions to those that fall short

Forested Countries will get a break in their quotas because trees absorb carbon dioxide

Penalties for countries that violate the treaty will be determined later

How Our Lives Would Have To Change

Industry would have to become much more energy-efficient and switch from dirty fuels like coal and oil to cleaner natural gas, which generates far less carbon dioxide

Drivers would have to trade in gas-guzzling cars for more fuel-efficient models or for automobiles that run at least partly on fuel cells, batteries and other nonpolluting power sources

Homeowners would be urged to generate their own emission-free electricity by, for example, installing tiles that incorporate solar cells on the roofs of their houses

Electric utilities would have to rely more and more on renewable energy sources like wind, solar, hydroelectric and perhaps someday even nuclear power

Consumers would have to start buying devices that consume far less energy, including compact-fluorescent bulbs and appliances redesigned to use minimal electricity

In TIME This Week:

Cover Date Dec. 22, 1997

Public Eye: Lies My Ambassador Told Me
A Treaty Meets A Sour Congress
Turning Down The Heat
The Notebook
Why Talk Is Not Cheap
Viewpoint: Not Enough Conversation?
Drew Friedman 'Toon

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