Bonn: So just why can't these men agree to save the planet?

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How a few months, and a new President of the United States, change everything. The countries of the European Union, including Britain, were bending over backwards in Bonn last night to make concessions that might keep afloat the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which Mr Bush rejected for the United States in March.

Last November in The Hague, European countries – Britain apart – took a hard environmental line against the US that resulted in deadlock. Last night they were taking a soft line against America's erstwhile negotiating allies in the treaty, Canada, Australia, Japan and Russia, but ironically the soft line looked like it might result in deadlock too, and the world's hard-won strategy for combating global warming would be thrown into chaos.

In The Hague the European Union wanted a good deal, and threw out what it perceived to be a bad one; last night in Bonn the EU wanted any sort of deal and was grasping at something much worse than the one it rejected in November.

Five hundred miles away at the G8 summit in Genoa, the leaders of the rich countries were making it clear in their final communiqué that the differences between them on countering climate change remained deep, with Canada's premier, Jean Chrétien, saying there would "probably" be no agreement in Bonn. But late last night the Canadians and their allies were still talking.

How did we get here? Two separate and major difficulties have beset Kyoto, the 1997 treaty which once seemed to have such a fair wind, and under which the developed countries agreed to cut their emissions of the industrialised gases believed to be causing the earth's atmosphere to overheat, with potentially disastrous global consequences.

The first problem concerns discord over the treaty's technical details; the second is about George Bush saying he wants nothing to do with it anyway. The talks in Bonn are about the first problem, but they have been affected by the second.

Last November there was a spectacular falling-out over technical details, and in particular the desire of some countries to have the ability of their forests as "sinks" to soak up carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas, counted against their targets for reducing emissions.

The US and its allies, collectively known as the "umbrella group" of countries, wanted big sinks – they all have big emissions reduction targets, and big forests – while some EU nations such as Germany and France insisted this would compromise the "environmental integrity" of the protocol, meaning fewer real emissions cuts in the long term.

The Europeans were quite right, because the clause of the treaty under which the US and its allies wanted their sinks – article 3.4 – did not oblige them to plant new trees: it allowed them to claim carbon credits merely for "managing" forests that are already there. But what does that mean? Creating firebreaks? Putting up fences? Many saw this simply as a gigantic loophole in the treaty, but so enormous was the US target – it was due to cut about a third of its economy's CO2, more than 600 million tons, by 2010 – that American negotiators insisted on it. The EU said no, and despite a last-minute attempt by John Prescott, then Secretary of State for the Environment, to strike a deal by giving the Americans what they wanted, the talks fell apart.

The current Bonn talks were immediately scheduled as a resumption of The Hague meeting, with a view to repairing the damage. But then came a wholly new factor – the loss of the US presidential election by Vice-President Al Gore, the man who had actually signed the Kyoto Protocol for America and one of its strongest backers, and the succession of Mr Bush, oilman and Kyoto-hater. Mr Bush's subsequent rejection of the treaty left it gravely undermined, because America is by far the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, putting out 25 per cent of the world's CO2 for less than 5 per cent of the world's population. But it did not mean that the treaty was finished, as it could be ratified and come into force if countries representing between them 55 per cent of the industrialised nations' emissions agreed to do so.

At their Gothenburg meeting in June, EU heads of government, including Tony Blair, agreed to go ahead and ratify without the US, but to reach the 55 per cent total they would need the support of Japan. For the last month the Japanese have been agonising, publicly and privately, about whether or not to ratify without the US, their dilemma being that on the one hand they do not wish to offend their major ally, and on the other they feel extremely proud of and derive enormous prestige from a treaty named after their loveliest and most historic city. But all that is academic if the talks in Bonn cannot patch up the technical rules of the protocol first. And the big difference between now and last November, and the new problem, is that Mr Bush's rejection of Kyoto has completely altered the dynamics of the Bonn negotiations. There is an urgent feeling from the protocol's supporters that so much is now at stake that failure must be avoided at all costs – which naturally gives them a very weak hand to play.

The deal on offer was a compromise put together by the chairman of the conference, the Dutch Environment Minister, Jan Pronk. It sets up the technical rules for the treaty, but includes three enormous concessions by the EU. The first concerns carbon sinks: sinks under article 3.4 are fully permitted and Canada, Japan and Russia are all to be allowed to use them to offset millions of tons of CO2 from their emissions reductions targets.

The second concerns sinks in the Third World: developed nations will be able further to offset their reduction targets by planting trees in developed countries and claiming carbon credit for them.

And the third concerns the degree to which countries can use sinks and the purchase of "surplus" emissions to meet their targets – the EU had insisted this could be no more than half the total, and the real effort had to be in real cuts in domestic economies. This too has gone by the board; all three points, which the EU would have rejected out of hand in The Hague, have now been agreed in the desperate search for a deal.

"We have big problems with this," said the EU's lead negotiator, the Belgian Energy Minister, Olivier Deleuze. "But if it's a take-it-or-leave-it paper, in the spirit of flexibility and because we have talked enough about climate change over the last 10 years, Europe is willing to accept it." A senior British official said: "This is a package with a lot of things we're not happy with, but we are prepared to go with it if it means a deal."

The poser in Bonn last night was whether America's erstwhile allies would accept it as well. Canada and the other "umbrella group" countries have much of what they wanted in the deal, but they were in no rush to embrace it immediately and it was possible, knowing Europe's desperation for a deal, they would seek even further concessions. Why throw away such a good poker hand? If they are to reject it, some will see the long hand of US diplomacy behind it all, as a rejection would of course suit America down to the ground, That may be fanciful, but there was no doubt whatsoever yesterday that the George Bush effect was being strongly felt in Bonn.

The long, long road to a deal

Countries which support the Kyoto Protocol are so keen on keeping it alive because the international effort to construct a world response to climate change has been immensely laborious and taken more than 10 years.

May 1990, Egham, Surrey: The UN's Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (IPCC) publishes its first assessment report and announces that the world's most senior meteorologists concur that the earth's climate is warming, with potentially disastrous consequences.

November 1990, Geneva: The countries of the world meet at the World Climate Conference and agree to draw up a climate treaty.

June 1992, Rio de Janeiro: More than 100 nations sign the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) with the treaty having been negotiated unusually swiftly to be ready in time for Rio. Countries agree to take voluntary measures to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, and get them back to their 1990 levels by the year 2000.

October 1995, Berlin: Nations which are parties to the Convention agree that voluntary measures will not be enough, and agree to negotiate a protocol to the Convention which will make reductions in emissions legally binding.

December 1997, Kyoto, Japan: The world community agrees the Kyoto Protocol, under which industrialised countries are to take the lead in reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide and five other gases to 5.2 per cent below their 1990 levels by 2010.

To help them achieve their targets they are allowed to use "flexible mechanisms" such as trading in emissions credits between countries, and the use of forests as "sinks" for absorbing carbon dioxide.

November 1998, Buenos Aires, Argentina: Countries begin to negotiate the detailed and complex rules for implementing Kyoto and agree that these should be ready by the time of the Sixth Conference of the Parties to the Convention in 2000.

November 2000, The Hague: Talks to agree the rules collapse over disagreement between the US and some European countries over the use of sinks, with John Prescott storming out after his proposed deal is rejected. Resumption of the meeting is scheduled for Bonn in 2001.

January 2001, Washington: George Bush elected President of the US. March 2001, Washington: George Bush rejects US involvement in the Kyoto Protocol, saying it is "fatally flawed" because the effort to get emissions down will harm US business, while developing countries to not have to take action.

June 2001, Gothenburg: EU leaders, including Britain, agree to ratify the protocol in 2002 without the US.

July 2001, Bonn: The international community tries to repair the damage done in the Hague, with George Bush's withdrawal having made their task very much harder.