On-Site Report from Buenos Aires Global Warming Talks: November 16, 1998

Peter Burleigh, the Acting US Ambassador to the U.N., signed the Kyoto Protocol on behalf of the Clinton Administration at 3:00 PM EST on November 12. The action symbolically — but not legally — commits the U.S. to achieving the emissions reduction targets spelled out in the Kyoto Protocol.

The fact that Burleigh, not President Clinton, signed the accord shows clearly that the treaty was too damaged and too controversial for Clinton to lend his weight to it. By deciding against sending either the Vice President or the President to the summit and deciding to let the U.S.’s Acting Ambassador to the U.N. sign the accord instead of the President, the Administration more or less conceded defeat at Buenos Aires. The only way the Administration could have claimed victory at the summit would have been if it had gained concessions from enough developing nations to make the treaty palatable to the U.S. Senate. The only developing nations to commit to emissions reductions of their own were Argentina and Kazakhstan. The only reason these nations likely made such commitments was because both stand to make money by selling emissions credits to the industrialized nations. Argentina, for example, could have emissions credits to sell worth up to $700 million each year.

By the close of the conference, it was apparent not only that the positions of the European Union, the United States and developing nations were no closer to each other than when the conference convened, but that new divisions had developed. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), for example, shocked delegates on Thursday when it insisted that OPEC nations be compensated for the billions in dollars in lost oil revenue that would result from implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. The remote possibility of an agreement in Buenos Aires was thus made even more remote.

Comments made by environmentalists reinforce the conclusion that the Buenos Aires summit was a failure for supporters of the Kyoto Protocol. Although groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund cautiously praised the U.S.’s signing of the treaty, it was abundantly clear that they were quite disappointed with the outcome of the conference.

Phil Clapp, President of the National Environmental Trust, probably summed it up best for the Greens in commenting on the signing: “It won’t have one single iota of impact on the negotiating going on here in Buenos Aires. The Administration has waited a year to sign the agreement and we have now gone through two weeks of talking — and they are stalemated.”

Kirsty Hamilton of Greenpeace said: “Absolutely nothing really happened at the Conference of the Parties.”

Sergio Federovisky, Editor of the Buenos Aires conference newspaper, made a number of insightful observations about how international negotiations on climate change have become bogged down. He said the Protocol is plagued with “invisible brackets” containing an infinite number of “vetoes.” These “invisible brackets” he noted, “bury it in inactivity.” He also suggested that many ministers trying to negotiate frequently didn’t know what many of the accord’s provisions really meant and ended up debating the same topics over and over again.

One of the most significant consequences of the conference is that the U.S. won’t be able to force future COP meetings to include discussion of voluntary reduction commitments among the developing world. With the minor exception of Argentina and Kazakhstan, the developing nations are firm in their opposition to this U.S. demand.

What will most likely happen between now and the end of President Clinton’s term is that a few more developing nations will agree to emission caps. However, they will most certainly not include any of the nations with substantial greenhouse gas emissions, such as China and Mexico. As a result, there will be no political pressure for the Senate to ratify the treaty.

Kyoto as a binding legal treaty is thus dead as far as the U.S. is concerned. However, it is still very much alive as a framework for future negotiations, likely to guide the Administration’s environmental policy and any future Democratic Administrations.

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