Three days to save the world: global warming summit on brink of failure

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The Independent Online
With just three days to go, more than 150 countries are still deeply divided over a new UN global warming treaty, as Nicholas Schoon writes from Tokyo. It now seems almost nothing will be done in the most important environment talks ever to avert potentially disastrous climate change, despite the first signs of a fudged agreement emerging last night.

The European Union's tough world-leading stance on tackling global warming has begun to crumble. It became clear last night that the EU would not win its key demand that developed countries should cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 15 per cent by 2010.

The final agreed target for cuts in these, the most important environmental talks ever, will be somewhere between 0 and 10 per cent, according to Britain's Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, who said last night that it was clear any agreement achieved by the end of the talks would be lacking crucial details.

Despite having had two-and-a-half years to draw up the treaty, and seven days of intense bargaining in Kyoto, the negotiators representing 150 countries have yet to reach agreement on about 10 issues and hundreds of lines of text.

The divisions between the EU and the rest of the wealthy nations over how much needs to be done remain deep. So does that between this US- dominated rich club and the developing world. But now ministers have arrived in Japan's former capital to start talking face-to-face, the pace has moved up several gears. This morning in Kyoto Mr Prescott will meet the US Vice- President Al Gore to ask America to give ground for the sake of the planet. "There's an overwhelming feeling that people do want to get an agreement - no one wants to be blamed for failure," said Mr Prescott.

If, however, the rich nations do agree to cut their annual emissions by only a few per cent compared to a 1990 baseline, that will be no great success in a world with an already warming atmosphere and oceans. It would signal to the Third World that those nations who produce most of the pollution do not take the problem too seriously. And, since global warming pollution from the poor countries is rising rapidly as they industrialise, it would not even stop world-wide emissions increasing each year. That, in turn, means the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will continue to rise more and more rapidly, threatening catastrophic climate change and sea-level rise through the next century and beyond.

Britain argues that the time has come to drop the two most extreme positions in these negotiations - the European Union wanting a 15 per cent cut and Australia demanding an 18 per cent increase.

As for the complex six issues which have absorbed days of talking in Kyoto, "there's not enough time to come to an agreement", said Mr Prescott. These include greenhouse gas "sinks" which absorb some of the pollution, like forestry plantations, "joint implementation" which means rich countries offsetting some of their cuts at home by helping poor countries reduce pollution, and the trading between wealthy nations in allowances to produce greenhouse gases. Much of the basics, let alone the detail, would have to be sorted out over the next two to three years.

A group of wealthy nations, led by the US, will have to soften its line on the Third World if there is to be any hope of an agreement by the time the conference ends, probably in the small hours of Thursday.

America has been demanding that the deal involves some developing countries, particularly India and China, making some kind of "meaningful" commitment about their own rising emissions. But that is outside the original mandate for the treaty.

Last night in Kyoto the EU's Environment Commissioner, Ritt Bjerregaard, said the EU rejected a new proposal of different targets for different nations based largely on how much each was willing to offer in the run- up to Kyoto. The suggestion is that Europe would cut by 10 per cent, the US by 5, Japan by 2.5 and Australia increase by 5. She said none of the EU ministers now in Kyoto "wish to water down the EU proposal ... the feeling is that the US can do much more." Hopes are pinned on Mr Gore.

But the EU will come down from 15 per cent, and there are signs of flexibility in its demand that all developed countries must sign up for the same cut. Already it is willing to allow Australia and some other countries an easier target. Behind the scenes talks have begun on a formula or set of rules which would in effect allow nations different targets over the 20-year period from 1990 to 2010.

Kyoto summit, page 10

Letters, page 12