The Heat Is Online

US Pullout Forces Kyoto Talks To Focus on Adaptation

Climate Talks Will Shift Focus From Emissions

The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2002

By Andrew C. Revkin

The latest round of international talks on global warming begins today in New Delhi, with delegates focused more on ways to adapt to changes than on cutting emissions of gases that scientists say are the main cause of rising temperatures.

The shift in focus is to some extent motivated by the Bush administration's rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 climate pact completed last year and endorsed by most of the world's countries, rich and poor.

Without the United States, the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases, the Kyoto treaty is so weak, experts and government officials say, that it may have little effect. Others say the treaty has in any case been so watered down through years of negotiations that it is likely to be of limited benefit.

Instead of looking mostly at ways to reduce the level of heat-trapping gases, then, the 10-day conference "will discuss how to build greater capacity, especially in developing countries, for minimizing vulnerabilities and preparing for worsening droughts, floods, storms, health emergencies, and other expected impacts," said a statement issued by the United Nations, which supervises the talks.

The shift satisfies the Bush administration, which has fought to avoid mandatory cuts in emissions for fear it would harm the economy. "We're welcoming a focus on more of a balance on adaptation versus mitigation," said a senior American negotiator in New Delhi. "You don't have enough money to do everything."

Many developing countries also embraced the change as an opportunity to press for more aid from rich nations. A central question in New Delhi, several delegates said in interviews, will be how much should the industrialized countries — which generate most of the greenhouse gases released into the air — pay to help poorer countries deal with the consequences.

Some private environmental groups criticized the shift, saying that it was essential for countries to intensify efforts to blunt the human impact on climate even as they seek ways to deal with the consequences.

Others said that even a weak treaty was better than none at all. "The protocol does not do much of anything for the atmosphere," said Eileen Claussen, the president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, a private group. "But you've got to get a framework in place before you can take more than relatively small steps."

The treaty, if it enters into force early next year as most delegates expect, would technically require industrialized countries that are signatories to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by 2012 to more than 5 percent below levels measured in 1990.

But it includes a host of compromises that limit the need to cut releases from smokestacks and tailpipes. For example, it grants credits for growing forests, which absorb carbon dioxide.

The Kyoto pact grants billions of tons of carbon-dioxide credits to Russia, where the economic implosion of the last decade resulted in emissions diving far below 1990 levels.

Other countries can meet their treaty targets at least in part by purchasing some of Russia's surplus credits, which some environmental groups have taken to calling "hot air" credits.

One of the biggest weaknesses, experts say, comes from the abandonment of the treaty last year by the United States, which produces about half of all the carbon dioxide released by industrialized countries and a fourth of the global total.

President Bush this year called for voluntary American measures to slow, but not halt, growth in emissions, saying the strict timetables of the treaty would have harmed the economy. He also said that global warming needed to be attacked by all countries. The treaty required no action by big developing countries like China and India, whose emissions could soon surpass those of wealthy countries.

Most scientists agree that the main cause of a 50-year global warming trend is a rise in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide released by burning coal, oil and other fossil fuels.

The warming is projected to affect ecosystems, agriculture, and coastlines around the world, with most of the harm focused in poor countries that are least able to build defenses.