U.S. Won't Join in Binding Climate Talks
Administration Agrees to Separate Dialogue

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

MONTREAL, Dec. 10 -- Despite the Bush administration's adamant resistance, nearly every industrialized nation agreed early Saturday to engage in talks aimed at producing a new set of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions that would take effect beginning in 2012.

In a separate accord, a broader coalition of nearly 200 nations -- including the United States -- agreed to a much more modest "open and nonbinding" dialogue that would not lead to any "new commitments" to reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with climate change.

The outcome of Saturday's negotiations -- which nearly collapsed at the eleventh hour after Russia and the United States raised separate objections -- underscored the promise and limits of international talks aimed at confronting one of the world's most far-reaching problems. The results also showed that foreign negotiators have concluded they must press ahead without the Bush administration's assent on the assumption that a burgeoning grass-roots movement will eventually bring the United States back to the negotiating table.

Margaret Beckett, Britain's environment secretary, warned reporters in the past week that such negotiations often offer "first false euphoria, followed by false despair." But on Saturday she said the two pacts prove policymakers have finally summoned the political will to combat global warming.

"The reason why collectively the world community succeeded here is because the debate itself is changing on the costs and benefits of climate change," Beckett said. "There is growing recognition of the costs of not taking action and of the opportunities that come with taking action itself."

But other parties to the agreements, which came at the end of a two-week conference sponsored by the United Nations, question whether they will have much impact, and prominent scientists such as James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, warn that nations may need to make deeper emissions cuts in the coming decade if they hope to avoid even more damaging warming. In a speech Dec. 6 in San Francisco, Hansen said, "Action must be prompt" to avoid a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that "will make it impractical to keep further global warming" within sustainable limits.

The earth has warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the past century. Most scientists agree that carbon dioxide and other gases that accumulate in the atmosphere as byproducts of fossil fuel burned by automobile engines, power plants and industry accounted for part of the temperature increase. The warming has melted glaciers, heated oceans and shrunk the Arctic ice cap.

Jennifer Morgan, who directs the global climate program for the advocacy group World Wildlife Fund, said after the binding agreement was completed: "In the end it will only be as strong as what the governments have agreed to commit to. We've only set up a process here."

One hundred fifty-seven countries, including every major developed nation except the United States and Australia, have agreed under the Kyoto Protocol to cut their 1990 greenhouse gas levels by an average of 5 percent over the next seven years. Now the question is whether the new round of talks -- minus U.S. participation -- will produce more ambitious emission reductions after 2012, when Kyoto expires.

"We need much deeper cuts beyond 2012," said Peter Carl, the European Union Commission's director general for the environment. Carl said that although it may be difficult to obtain such commitments, he is optimistic because he had been "deeply impressed by the atmosphere during this conference."

The United States, which produces one-quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, objects to mandatory limits on the grounds that they could damage the nation's economy and because developing nations, such as China and India, which are burning increasing amounts of fossil fuel, have not embraced binding emissions cuts. Under Saturday's nonbinding agreement, however, China and India pledged to pursue voluntary emissions reductions.

China and India contend that their populations emit far smaller amounts of greenhouse gas per capita than people in the United States.

European delegates said they became convinced over the course of the conference that they could move ahead on climate change because so many Americans -- including state and local officials, senators, students and even former president Bill Clinton -- journeyed to Montreal to urge negotiators to embark on a new round of binding talks.

"Just because the Bush administration doesn't want this doesn't mean the rest of the world doesn't see this as the right thing to do. What is apparent here is the U.S. is very split on this," Danish negotiator Eva Jensen said. She said Clinton's speech Friday extolling the economic and social benefits of cutting greenhouse gases "gives the world the idea that even though the U.S. at the moment isn't being very constructive in the negotiations, this might change over time."

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, whose city won a major global environmental award last week for cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 5 percent in the past three years, said state and local officials are "basically leaving the administration in the dust. The next administration will have little choice but to finally work in collaboration with the rest of the international community."

But several negotiators said they had to do a better job of enlisting the United States' aid in cutting the use of fossil fuels. Corrado Clini, director general of the Italian Ministry of Environment and Territory, said that even if the European Union meets its Kyoto targets in 2012, global emissions would be reduced by less than 2 percent.

"I don't think, without a partnership between the European Union and the United States, we will be able to address climate change," Clini said. "It is like a marriage. The real risk is we are aging before the marriage, and when we marry, it will be too late to be effective."

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) was even more skeptical of Saturday's pact, saying it would lead only to "a dead end economically."

"Two weeks of costly deliberation only resulted in an agreement to deliberate some more, so Montreal was essentially a meeting about the next meeting," Inhofe said in a statement. "The Kyoto Protocol . . . is a complete failure."

As tenuous as Saturday's agreements may appear, they almost did not happen at all. The U.S. delegation, which did not return calls or e-mails Saturday, balked until late Friday night at the prospect of engaging in even nonbinding climate change talks. And Russia almost derailed the pact on future negotiations about mandatory emissions cuts when it proposed language that would have established a specific way for countries to count voluntary emission cuts as part of the binding agreement.

In the end, negotiators agreed on language that showed how far apart the two camps remain. Climate policy expert Myron Ebell at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute called the decision to move forward with a binding agreement "a futile exercise." Environmentalist Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, called Montreal "the tipping point. This is when the world got serious about dealing with this issue."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company