Breakthrough on global warming accord

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Negotiators reached a breakthrough early today on rules governing a treaty on climate change, an historic first international accord to curb global warming.

The agreement, accepted in a marathon closed-door meeting of chief delegates, was adopted shortly afterward by the plenary of the 165-nation climate conference by concensus without a vote.

Cabinet ministers emerged smiling from a conference room after nearly 19 hours of negotiation over complex legal text. "I'm tired, but it was worth it," said Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson.

Negotiations became bogged down in the middle of the night over a few points in a thick book of binding rules governing the implementation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The protocol would requires industrial countries to scale back emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to less than 1990 levels by an average of 5 percent by 2012.

"We have an accord, and only a few hours ago we thought we wouldn't," said French Environment Minister Yves Cochet.

The United States, the world's biggest polluter, watched from a distance, having decided last March to abandon the treaty and draw up its own action plan.

"The big question now is how we bring the United States into the biggest international effort against the greenhouse effect," said Olivier Deleuze, Belgium's state secretary for the environment and head of the European delegation.

Delegates said the agreement opened the way for ratification by enough countries to bring the treaty into force, probably before a global environment summit next September marking 10 years since the first voluntary measures were adopted against climate change at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

The treaty needs ratification by 55 countries, including those that produced 55 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. Without the United States, virtually every other industrial country would have to endorse the agreement to reach that goal.

Environmentalists welcomed the final step in the four-year process of framing the treaty and its underlying legal text, even though they said it was a watered down version of what had been envisioned.

"It's a poor deal," said Bill Hare of the Greenpeace environmental group. "But that doesn't mean it's not worth having. It is a first step."

On the last day of the two-week conference, negotiators had been stuck on five points related to mechanisms that countries might employ to ease the task of reducing emissions which are blamed for the gradual warming of the earth.

Canada, Russia, Japan and Australia rejected a paper submitted on Thursday on how market-based mechanisms would function, holding out against nearly all the other 161 countries attending the conference.

The deadlock was finally broken with a four-point compromise paper. "With the addition of this paper, the package is satisfactory. I am very pleased," said Canada's David Anderson.

The mechanisms are designed to help countries meet their targets by buying or selling carbon credits on an international financial market, or by reducing their quota by expanding forests and farmland that soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The US position weighed heavily on the meeting. At the previous conference in Germany last July, all other countries decided to press ahead with the first compulsory global accord on the environment, despite the US withdrawal. But some said the absence of the United States made it virtually worthless.

A US delegation was in Marrakech and attended even the difficult negotiations in the waning hours of the conference. But the delegates refrained from participating in talks on the treaty itself, participants said.

Scientists say glaciers are already melting and rain patterns are shifting because of global warming. Over the next century, temperatures could rise as much as 10 degrees, leading to more intense storms, droughts and a potentially disastrous rise in sea levels.

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