Stalemate on Kyoto


News that the United States has turned down an invitation from the European Union to resume efforts to reach agreement on responses to world climate change is disappointing but not unexpected. The EU summit at Nice requested the talks in an attempt to reach a deal which would allow negotiations on the Kyoto Protocol to reopen. They broke down last month when US and EU ministers failed to agree on measures to implement the protocol. Given President-elect George W. Bush's known hostility to it, this could be the signal for a more long-term failure. The chief US negotiator explained he could not attend the meeting in Oslo unless agreement there could be assured. It became clear in Brussels yesterday that the two sides are still far apart on the main issues that divide them. These mainly concern curbs on emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which lead to global warming. Scientific advice increasingly converges on this question, linking recent turbulent patterns of storms and natural disasters to human behaviour. The overall reduction of 5.2 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions agreed at Kyoto in December 1997, looks increasingly unlikely to be achieved. Nonetheless even this modest target is better than no agreement at all.

The talks broke down over appropriate measures to arrest the increase in greenhouse gases. US negotiators argued they should be allowed to use forests, which absorb carbon dioxide, to reduce the huge increase in US emissions through the 1990s boom year; otherwise they would have to reduce their emissions by more than one third to fulfill their protocol commitments, with drastic effects on lifestyle choices. Another contentious method is to trade reductions with countries more than fulfilling their quotas, which the US supports and the EU States reject.

The attempt to win agreement before Mr Clinton leaves office having apparently failed, it will fall to Mr Bush and his team to conduct these talks in the New Year, notably at a resumed summit in Bonn next May. This will be a real test of the new president's willingness to become involved in multilateral bargaining and of the EU's readiness to accommodate different US policy priorities. The climate change issue is but one of a string of difficult questions facing EU and US negotiators. Many of them were touched upon by Mr Clinton and President Chirac of France when they met for their regular summit in Washington yesterday. Trade in bananas, genetically modified food, hormonal additives and the prospects for another world trade round were prominent on the agenda. In addition there are difficult issues to resolve on how the EU's rapid Reaction Force will interact with NATO. As Mr Bush announces the senior members of his team political leaders in Europe are anxiously examining how the new administration will handle trans-Atlantic relations. There are several signals that they will loom less prominently in his foreign policy than during Mr Clinton's two terms.