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With big nations sitting out, impact of environmental treaty unclear

WASHINGTON—A controversial world treaty designed to curb emissions of global warming gases goes into effect Wednesday, but even ardent supporters say it isn't enough to stop a runaway environmental problem.

That's because some big polluting nations—including the United States, which produces about one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases—aren't part of the deal.

The Kyoto Protocol, ratified by 33 countries, goes into force 90 days after Russia endorsed the treaty, which was written in 1997. It requires that by 2012, industrialized countries—mostly European nations and Japan—cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases to 5 percent below 1990 levels.

Growing amounts of those gases are seen by most scientists as causing higher atmospheric temperatures, which in turn melt polar ice, increase ocean levels and alter global weather.

The Bush administration contends that the science is not clear enough to act and that the treaty would be costly and penalize the United States unfairly. To signal its doubt about the science, administration officials call the environmental phenomenon "climate change" rather than "global warming."

The thirty-three nations who've endorsed the treaty will celebrate with speeches, parties and demonstrations of clean technology. Proponents say the treaty is a needed first step in tackling a major worldwide environmental problem.

"We are quite convinced that it is THE hurdle that had to be overcome and perhaps afterwards the uphill battle is not that steep anymore," said Henning Wuester, a special assistant to the head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany.

The consensus of most of the world's climate scientists is that global warming is real and caused by carbon dioxide and other emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, mainly coal, oil and gasoline. The National Academy of Sciences and the International Panel on Climate Change said the Earth's temperature could rise between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

The Bush administration opted out of the treaty in 2001. Large polluting developing nations, such as China and India, aren't part of its curbs on industrialized nations, which the Bush administration says is unfair.

"The United States continues to believe that the Kyoto Protocol is not in the best interest of the United States, and it's just not the administration but the Congress that does not support it because of the deleterious effects it would have on the economy," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Friday. In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 against the basic principles of the treaty.

Greenhouse gases are likely to grow despite the cutbacks from those countries signing the treaty, said World Bank chief scientist Bob Watson, past chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That's because of increased pollution from the United States, which has increased emissions of greenhouse gas by 13.4 percent since 1990, and fast-growing China and India.

The overall scientific effect of the Kyoto Protocol is akin to "only slightly taking the foot" off the accelerator of a car, Watson said. However, the problem would be much worse without European, Japanese and other industrial nations' reductions, he said.

The treaty, Watson said, "is a very important political step. It's one step in a very long journey, but if you don't take the first step you never get there."

Myron Ebell, director of international environmental policy at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, disputes claims that global warming is a real problem and that change is needed.

"It appears that Kyoto has succeeded and failed on the same day. It's now going into force, but everybody agrees it can't do anything and won't work," Ebell said.

Not so, say U.N. officials.

The idea is to show that cutting back on carbon dioxide and other emissions can be done in a growing economy, perhaps luring the United States and other nations into the fold, Wuester said. He added: "Countries will find it much less difficult to bring emissions down than they anticipated."

U.S. negotiators actually came up with the treaty's mechanisms to reduce emissions, noted Mohammad Reza Salamat, an interregional adviser on climate change and energy issues for the United Nations in New York. They would have benefited the United States because of its specific geography and economics, he said, and they fit the market-based philosophy of the Bush administration.

The treaty allows companies and countries—although not the United States because America opted out of the treaty—to trade credits for greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. So if it's cheaper to reduce emissions in Bulgaria than in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom can pay Bulgaria in return for the right to claim Bulgaria's reduced pollution as its own. By not signing the treaty, U.S. companies will lose out on what Salamat expects will be a big economic market both in trading emission credits and in new technology.

"For the first time a global environmental threat is going to be addressed by market-based mechanisms," Salamat said. "This is going to reduce costs a lot."

Later this year, the United Nations will start preliminary negotiations on a new treaty for further emission reductions, Wuester said. It's unclear what the U.S. role will be.

There's a catch-22 situation for the United States, Salamat said.

"With the U.S. out, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have developing countries in," Salamat said. "And with developing countries out, it would be extremely difficult to have the U.S. in."

This is going to be a long-term effort with many treaties, said Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider.

"You're going to need two generations of cooperative effort ... to get ourselves off the fat carbon diet we're on," Schneider said.

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For more information, check out the following Web sites:

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: http://unfccc.int/2860.php

The Energy Information Administration on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/index.html

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: http://www.ipcc.ch/

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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