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Global Warming Accord Takes Effect Minus US, Australia

An accord on global warming, known as the Kyoto Protocol, comes into effect Wednesday, February 16. But, the protocol is not expected to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions - especially without the United States among the 141 signatories to the pact.

The product of much haggling, the Kyoto Protocol was drafted as the first international instrument aimed at curbing worldwide pollution. The accord, which was hammered out in 1997, commits nations to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, which many scientists believe are at least partially responsible for global warming.

The Protocol calls for industrialized nations to cut their emissions by an average of five percent by 2012. Each country has its own targets, depending on their level of industrialization. Developing countries are exempt from targeted cuts.

But even environmentalists say the Kyoto Protocol's goals are too modest to make a significant dent in curbing pollution. And, they add, the protocol's effect is further reduced by the decision by the United States in 2001 to withdraw from the pact.

According to official U.S. government statistics, the United States is the world's biggest emitter of the designated greenhouse gases.

Australia has also decided not to sign the protocol.

Nevertheless, Worldwatch Institute President Chris Flavin says Kyoto is a start.

"That is how we have made progress on the air quality issues in the United States, where we have made incremental progress with regulations that start out being relatively weak, but then get strengthened over time," he said. "And so I think it is frankly a little silly and certainly defeatist to be crying about the fact that this is not the perfect agreement."

The Kyoto pact was never submitted to the U.S. Senate for approval. Before negotiations finished, the Senate passed a unanimous resolution in 1997 condemning the Protocol as economically harmful to the United States and overly favorable to developing nations. It said rapidly industrializing countries, like China and India should be held to the same emissions standards as developed nations.

When the Bush administration took office it labled the pact "fatally flawed" because of the costs to U.S. industry. The administration has shown a preference instead for setting voluntary emission target limits for U.S. companies and research on new energy technologies.

Research manager Russell Jones, of the pro-business lobbying group the American Petroleum Institute, says curbing climate change has to include developing as well as industrialized nations.

"If climate is a serious problem, it cannot be addressed without the developing countries because that is where the growth in emissions are going to be," he said. "And so they need to be involved. And they basically had no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol."

At a recent forum, senior U.S. climate negotiator Harlan Watson said criticism by other nations of the refusal to accede to the Protocol is unfair.

"I challenge them to match us," he said. "As they say, we spend more on science and technology than anyone else in the world by far."

But Bernhard May, an American expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, says international pollution controls make no sense without U.S. participation.

"You cannot have an agreement on climate change without the United States," he said. "It just does not make sense to have the most important country and the biggest polluter in the world not taking part in any activities fighting climate change."

Pew Center on Global Warming President Eileen Claussen says the Kyoto Protocol's greatest impact may be moral, rather than practical.

"What is important about Kyoto is that it is a statement of the will, of will, on the part of all countries, except those that have not ratified it - and the two biggest ones are of course the United States and Australia," she said. "And it is a statement that says, we think this is a serious problem and we intend to try to do something about it."

Bernhard May notes that British Prime Minister Tony Blair has put global warming on the agenda for the G8 Summit of industrialized nations in Britain this July, and that he is likely to raise the issue directly with President Bush as well.

"I do hope that Great Britain and Tony Blair will work hard to bring President Bush along, that he will agree, 'Yes, we have to talk about climate change,'' he said. "And maybe step by step, we forget Kyoto because Kyoto is important, but Kyoto is just the first step. Kyoto is not the end of the road, Kyoto is the beginning of the road."

Negotiations are to begin later this year to set new emission target levels to take effect in 2012.