The United States showed no signs of budging in its opposition to the Kyoto protocol on Monday as United Nations climate change talks began, a month after President George W. Bush's reelection and Russia's ratification of the agreement.
The US government said it had "chosen a different path" from Kyoto, but vowed to work against global warming by slowing greenhouse gas emissions, investing in climate science and technology and cooperating internationally.
Bush withdrew in 2001 from the 128-nation Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. He argued it was too expensive and wrongly excluded developing nations.
Of the large industrialized countries, only the United States and Australia have refused to join the UN effort. But they account for around one-third of global emissions. The Australian government says ratifying Kyoto would hike power prices and cost the country jobs.
Scientists predict the rise in temperatures will accelerate melting glaciers and polar ice caps, leading to a rise in sea levels, extreme weather like heat waves, the spread of tropical diseases and the collapse of forests, coral reefs and farming.
"Efforts to address climate change will only be sustainable if they also serve a larger purpose of fostering prosperity and well-being for citizens around the globe," Harlan Watson, alternate head of the US delegation, told the Buenos Aires conference to the parties, known as COP 10.
Russia's ratification has created the most optimistic mood in years among environmentalists since it allows Kyoto to go into effect in February with a seven-year delay.
Kyoto enters into force
"The fact that the Kyoto Protocol enters into force really gives much more strength to this debate," said Joke Waller-Hunter, executive secretary for the UN framework convention on climate change.
No major targets are expected from Buenos Aires. Rather, it is an opportunity for countries to begin discussing a timetable to define how much climate change the world can handle.
The conference has drawn 6,000 delegates from 194 countries, and environmental ministers from 80 countries will meet in the final days of COP 10, from December 15-17.
But the United States' refusal to sign hangs over the 12-day meeting.
"It is a fantasy to try to mitigate climate change without the participation of the United States," said Juan Carlos Villalonga, director of campaigns at Greenpeace Argentina.
Miguel Rementeria, an Argentine environmental activist, said he harbors no hopes of a shift in US policy.
"The big businesses that back Bush do not want it (Kyoto) and that will not change," Rementeria said.
To drive home the point of climatic changes, Greenpeace built a giant ark on Buenos Aires' main avenue where some 2,000 people lined up on Monday to take temporary refuge.
But even Kyoto's backers say its provisions are not enough to reverse global warming and it is essential to get developing nations -- notably China, India and Brazil -- on board.
The Buenos Aires talks will touch on the participation of these countries in curbing emissions after Kyoto runs out in 2012.
The European Union and some environmental groups want to limit any global temperature rise to 2.0˚C. Temperatures have risen by 0.6˚C since the late 1800s.
US's return inevitable
The United States will sooner or later rejoin the Kyoto Protocol, even though the Bush administration still shuns the United Nations' global warming pact, French Ecology Minister Serge Lepeltier said on Tuesday.
Lepeltier, speaking on France-Inter radio, said that the Protocol, due to take effect February 16, would become an irresistible force.
"I am convinced that we are going to bring the United States into Kyoto, even if it does not want to," he said.
Lepeltier suggested the US Federal Government would be caught in a "vise."
It would be pressured on one side by US firms doing business in Europe and on the other by US states, such as California, which are starting to take individual action on climate change, he predicted.
"American corporations that have operations in Europe... Are going to have to meet the rules which we set in place to uphold Kyoto, at (European) soil," Lepeltier said.
"It may not happen today and it may not happen tomorrow, but the United States will inevitably have to develop these technologies because they do not want to lag, which would be a major risk for their companies."
The interview came a day after the start of a new round of talks on Kyoto.
Kyoto requires industrialized countries to curb emissions of carbon gas that are blamed for trapping the Sun's heat, thus driving up atmospheric temperatures and disturbing Earth's fragile climate system.
The gas is mainly derived from burning oil, gas and coal, the fossil fuels that are the backbone of the global economy.
Bush declared he would not put the draft treaty to the US Senate for ratification, mainly because it would be too costly for the oil-dependent American economy.
Kyoto runs out on 2012 but negotiations begin next year on a successor to it.
Speaking on Monday at the start of the conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Washington's senior climate change negotiator Harlan Watson ruled out any change of position.
"For the United States, any future treaty should not hurt the country's economy and should cover every country in the world, including developing nations," he said.
Supporters of Kyoto are confident that even without the United States, the biggest single culprit for global warming, the treaty will succeed.
They point to the treaty's combination of legally binding rules and market mechanisms, designed to motivate corporations into adopting clean technology and energy efficiency in return for making or saving money.
More aggressive fight urged
Top environmental groups warned on Tuesday at the international conference on climate change that governments must work more aggressively to cut greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
As representatives of nearly 200 nations gathered in Buenos Aires, a coalition of groups warned government policy-makers that rising temperatures are a real menace, particularly to developing nations.
Greenpeace, Oxfam, World Wildlife Fund and other groups called for "urgent action from governments" to halt temperatures increases they said hit hardest at the poor and developing countries.
Yet they said in a study that industrial nations have an obligation to take the lead in arresting the trend.
Thousands of participants in two weeks of meetings will be looking at new methods of limiting heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere and developing strategies to persuade more nations to curb their carbon dioxide emissions.
Many environmentalists are alarmed by what they consider mounting evidence of global warming's destructive toll. But scientists disagree on the dangers of global climate change.
However, other experts cautioned against drawing broad conclusions from temperature changes over just a few decades. Sea levels have been rising for 20,000 years and temperatures in the Arctic have been both lower and higher than they are today, they say.
Rising coral reef damage
Only about 30 percent of the world's coral reefs are healthy, down from 41 percent two years ago, according to a study released on Monday that lists global warming as the top threat.
The study found as many as one-fifth of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed. Another half are damaged but could be saved, it said.
Coral reefs are among the oldest and most diverse forms of life. They provide food and shelter to fish and protect shores from erosion.
While covering less than 1 percent of the earth's surface, they help drive the food chains and economies of many on the planet, with US$375 billion in economic benefits globally, according to the study by 240 scientists in 96 countries.
After global warming -- blamed for higher water temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations -- threats to the reefs include coral disease, overfishing, coastal development and pollution runoff from land-based sources.
"Reefs need our help, but they're not going to go extinct," said Clive Wilkinson, the study's lead author and coordinator of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. Still, he said, it's crucial to "raise the level of political will" to help reefs around the world.
"We know they're degrading fast, we know what the problems are, we know how to fix them," Wilkinson said at news conference by the Swiss-based World Worldlife Fund.
"We've just got to do it."
Destruction or threats to 70 percent of the coral reefs represent a sharp rise from 59 percent in the last study in 2002.
About 65 percent of the Gulf's reefs have been destroyed, the report said. Next in terms of damage are reefs off South and Southeast Asia, where 45 percent and 38 percent, respectively, have been destroyed.
Retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, a Commerce Department undersecretary who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, called reefs a global issue.
"It is not just a nice thing from an environmental perspective," Lautenbacher said. "It is essential to life on earth."
John Turner, assistant secretary of state for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs, called the report "a wake-up call" and said it would be circulated to US diplomats overseas.
A more positive development is the recovery of about two-fifths of the reefs seriously damaged by an unprecedented coral "bleaching" from unusually warm waters in 1998. About 16 percent of global reefs had been damaged by the bleaching.
Most of the reefs that have recovered in the Indian Ocean are part of the Great Barrier Reef off Australia's coast or are in the western Pacific, particularly around Palau. Australia this year put as much as a third of both its Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef marine park off limits to fishing.
The Caribbean has lost 80 to 98 percent of its elkhorn and staghorn coral, two of the region's most common species, the scientists said, suggesting the United States should look at listing them as endangered species.
A petition from an environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity, to do that is being considered by the Bush administration.
The administration's efforts so far to protect coral reefs include improving monitoring and satellite surveillance, agreeing to Geneva-based treaty restrictions on international trade in coral reefs and passing out US$10 million in grants, Lautenbacher said.
The administration is also considering creating a national marine sanctuary and banning commercial fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to protect the chain's delicate reefs. A decision is expected by the end of 2005, Lautenbacher said.
UK may miss CO2 emission target
Britain is in danger of missing its target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by the end of the decade, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said yesterday.
"We can see that we're not doing as well as we should if we're to meet that target," she told BBC Radio, adding that Britain would, however, meet its more modest Kyoto Protocol target of cutting emissions by 12.5 percent by 2008-12.
"We have set ourselves pretty high targets," she said. "We are well ahead of our main legal commitment but we set ourselves more ambitious targets and we have to do more to meet them."
Beckett was due to launch a government review of its policy on climate change later yesterday, when it is expected to give further details of how far it is from hitting its targets.
The main reason Britain will meet its Kyoto target is the replacement in the 1990s of many polluting coal-fired power stations with cleaner gas plants.
But after falling in the 1990s, emissions rose last year -- partly because power stations burned more coal after a sharp rise in gas prices.
In October, Britain said it would increase carbon dioxide quotas for industry after complaints -- especially from the power sector -- that its CO2 reduction plans were too tough.
(China Daily December 9, 2004)