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Originally published Monday, December 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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U.N.'s task: Fix Kyoto's flaws

Despite the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's status as the flagship of the fight against climate change, it has been a failure in the hard, expensive...

Los Angeles Times

BALI, Indonesia -- Despite the 1997 Kyoto Protocol's status as the flagship of the fight against climate change, it has been a failure in the hard, expensive work of actually reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Its restrictions have been so gerrymandered that only 36 countries are actually required to limit their pollution. Just over one-third of those -- members of the former Eastern bloc -- can pollute at will because their limits were set so far above their actual emissions.

China and India, whose fast-rising emissions easily cancel out any cuts elsewhere, are allowed to keep polluting.

And the biggest polluter of all, the United States, simply has refused to join the treaty.

That leaves Western Europe, Canada, Japan and New Zealand to do the work of the world. Their emissions are rising despite their commitment, starting next year, to reduce them by an average of roughly 8 percent from 1990 levels.

Fixing the flaws of Kyoto has become an urgent crusade as U.N. talks begin today in Bali, Indonesia, to create the successor to the treaty, which expires at the end of 2012. Negotiations are expected to last at least two years.

This time, scientists say there is no leeway for weak measures. The push has come from a series of landmark reports this year by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that concluded that greenhouse-gas emissions must begin declining in the next decade to prevent a dangerous temperature rise.

The panel, which shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore, laid out a framework for reducing emissions that could cost trillions of dollars over the next two decades.

The question is whether the nations meeting in Bali are willing to embrace such stringent measures.

Yvo de Boer, general secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, said the role of the United States "would be critical" in the discussions and that delegates must create a road map that's embraced by Washington.

For all its flaws, Kyoto was a remarkable agreement, forged at a time when there still were widespread doubts about the seriousness -- or even existence -- of global warming. Delegates meeting in Kyoto, Japan, outlined an agreement that would extend 15 years. It would establish a baseline for emissions somewhere in the past and require countries to meet reduction targets.

Because the industrialized world was responsible for the massive accumulation of greenhouse gases over the last 150 years, it would bear the bulk of the costs.

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A key element was to get the world to sign on together as a statement of resolve.

It immediately became apparent that regulating emissions from fossil fuels -- the lifeblood of the world economy -- would not be easy.

Developing countries, led by China and India, rejected mandatory caps, arguing that their economies should not be punished for the pollution sins of the industrialized nations.

The Kyoto nations agreed to exempt developing countries from pollution limits. That has amounted to 139 nations.

Together, 10 of those countries increased their annual emissions by more than 5 billion metric tons, accounting for 75 percent of the growth in world carbon-dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2005, according to U.S. Department of Energy figures.

China's emissions grew 138 percent over that period, catching up to U.S. emissions and setting a pace to double them in less than a decade. Letting the developing world avoid emissions caps put the burden on 38 industrial nations, including the United States, most of Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

One problem was picking a year to establish the emissions baseline. A late date would have been least painful for countries with healthy economies. But that would have put the Eastern European countries at an enormous disadvantage, because their economies had crashed and thus their baseline would have been too low. The baseline ultimately was set at 1990 for most countries -- a time when the Eastern European economies were still intact.

As a result, 13 countries of the former Soviet bloc were essentially left free of a cap. Not including their illusory reductions, total carbon-dioxide emissions from countries bound by Kyoto's caps have risen by more than 8 percent.

But even if all the industrial countries could make their targets, the goals negotiated a decade ago now look tepid compared with the 50 percent cuts U.N. scientists say are necessary in the next 40 years.

"There was not a lot of science behind the targets," said Nathan Hultman, a professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University. "It was kind of pulling a number out of a hat and saying, 'What do we think we can achieve in 10 to 15 years?' "

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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