Kyoto Summit: Marathon talks put US to the test

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If the world's wealthy countries are serious about complying with the Kyoto climate treaty, big changes are ahead in the way they use energy. No country, says Nicholas Schoon, Environment Correspondent, faces a bigger challenge than the United States.

The gas-guzzling era is coming to an end for the United States, the world's biggest climate-change polluter in both absolute and per capita terms. Either that, or President Clinton has no intention of honouring commitments made in Japan.

America's emissions have been rising steadily through the 1990s. The White House says that if policies do not change, by 2010, US output of greenhouse gases would be nearly 30 per cent higher than in the treaty's baseline year of 1990. Instead, the US is now expected to cut emissions by some 6 per cent under the protocol. That means a raft of new policies and projects to save energy and generate pollution-free electricity in order to meet the commitment.

But the US is planning to make some of the emission cuts outside its own borders, using the new pollution trading and swapping regimes for which the treaty provides.

Britain and the European Union find themselves in a much easier position. The EU had been pitching for an ambitious 15 per cent cut between 1990 and 2010, while the UK's new Government had a manifesto commitment to cut carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, by 20 per cent over that period. Now, under the new treaty, neither the EU nor the UK have any legal obligation to deliver anywhere near such deep cuts. But Britain's environmental groups will be urging the Government to stick to its target, continuing to show world leadership in cutting emissions. If the UK did, that would open the possibility of Britain selling pollution allowances to the USA, worth millions of dollars.

The Kyoto protocol provides several ways in which nations can collaborate to cut greenhouse gases. Industrialised countries are allowed to claim some of their reductions by supporting projects in Third World nations which enable them to produce less climate pollution than they would otherwise. For example, the US might provide the extra finance needed to build a "green", low-pollution power station in India, instead of a cheaper, highly polluting coal-fired one.

The US would then be able to claim the emissions saved as its own. But to do so, it would have to obtain a certificate proving this swap was a genuine one which really did curb pollution. Part of the fee paid for the certificate would go into a new "clean development mechanism", which would help Third World nations adapt to the impacts of changing climate and rising sea levels.

There is also scope for developed countries to trade in greenhouse gas quotas. A nation that cut emissions below its treaty target could bank up a pollution credit and then sell it, as quotas, to a country which found itself unable to meet its commitment. By buying the quotas it would avoid breaching the treaty. Much of the detailstill has to be thrashed out at future meetings.

Throughout the talks, the EU, Third World and environmentalists have been suspicious of such provisions. But the US has insisted, and these have been the price for getting it to agree to a much deeper cut than it originally offered. Now the big question is whether the Senate will ever ratify the treaty. If it doesn't, the Kyoto protocol is sunk.