All that Kyoto heat, for next to nothing

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The Independent Online
After a night of agonising last minute negotiations, an agreement on a new treaty to combat global warming hung in the balance. But the long-sought agreement will do little to slow down the heating of the planet, predict Nicholas Schoon and Richard Lloyd Parry in Kyoto.

Delegations from 160 countries were struggling to reach agreement on a treaty to tackle the threat of catastrophic climate change. With hours to go before delegates were due to fly home from Japan, the UN environment conference was deadlocked in some of the most complex international negotiations ever undertaken

The Kyoto Protocol is intended to be the first concerted, legally binding attempt to tackle the dangers of global warming caused by humanity's fast rising emissions of heat trapping gases.

But the compromises required to bring together governments as diverse as the United States, China and Middle East oil producers, have disappointed environmentalists, vulnerable island nations, and the European Union. All three wanted to go further and faster in cutting emissions than Europe's main trading rivals, Japan and the US.

With many of the details of its implementation unresolved, the Kyoto conference amounts to little more than an opening declaration of war against global warming. After 10 days and several nights of intensive, against- the-clock negotiations, the developed countries including Russia and those of Eastern Europe were expected to cut their annual emissions of six key greenhouse gases by 6 per cent by 2012, compared to their 1990 level.

But hours after the conference's scheduled close, delegates from 150 nations were still arguing through the night over most of the same issues which have divided them over the last 10 days.

The latest draft of the protocol made an indecisive start on reducing the risk of dangerous swings in climate and rises in sea level. It would not actually stop emissions rising because the fast-growing pollution from developing countries would outweigh the modest cuts by the rich ones. That means the build-up of greenhouse gases would continue to accelerate - and so would climate change. But the hope was that a similar treaty for developing nations could be negotiated in the next few years.

After beginning the conference poles apart, Europe and the US managed to agree late yesterday on a similar target for cutting emissions of some 6 per cent. But the European Union was still trying to close potential loopholes which it feared could drastically reduce the cuts America had to make. And the developing nations - principally China and the oil-producing Arab States - balked at an American demand that they commit to reducing their own emissions.

A burst of telephone diplomacy between heads of government, including Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, the Japanese prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, failed to end the wrangling.

But the proposed treaty would mark the birth of a new global trading commodity - emissions licenses, which will be sold by countries with low emissions and bought by heavy polluters aiming to burn fossil fuels above their quota.