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Global warming talks are planned for May -- barely

As US resists, seminar set to be informal

BUENOS AIRES -- Long nights of backroom wrangling and a last-minute tangle produced a deal yesterday that opens a small door to international talks about what comes "beyond Kyoto" as the world grapples with the threat of global warming.

Bush administration envoys to a UN conference, allied with some developing countries, including oil producers, blocked any more ambitious effort to cap fossil-fuel emissions after reductions mandated by the Kyoto Protocol, the climate pact rejected by President Bush, expire in 2012.

Yesterday's agreement was not a "foothold," said climate negotiator Michael Zammit Cutajar, a Maltese diplomat. "It's a finger-hold, like hanging on by your nails."

The annual climate conference approved a seminar next May, as proposed by the European Union, but one at which governments can only informally raise a range of issues, including next steps on control of carbon-dioxide and other emissions blamed for warming.

"The only thing we want to discuss is future options, and we will," said a key EU negotiator, Pieter van Geel, the Dutch environment secretary.

For their part, the Americans avoided any commitment to formally negotiate mandatory reductions in emissions, the idea Bush rejected in 2001, when he renounced Kyoto. Bush said Kyoto would harm the US economy and complained that China, India, and other poorer but industrializing nations were exempt from the 1997 pact's short-term goals.

Even this US-European compromise, brought to the open floor for routine adoption at the end of the two-week conference, was stalled for hours yesterday morning by India, China, and others.

"Developing countries and the US didn't want to see a wider opening for new commitments," Chinese delegate Gao Feng said. With Argentina's mediation, new language was inserted on the floor saying the seminar "does not open any negotiation leading to new commitments."

If the Europeans or others at next year's seminar launch discussions about a future treaty framework, US diplomats will probably ignore them. "We think it's premature," the US delegation head, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, said last week.

Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of automobile engines, power plants, and other fossil fuel-burning industries, traps heat that otherwise would escape the atmosphere. A broad scientific consensus, endorsed by a UN-sponsored network of climatologists, holds that most of the past century's global temperature rise -- 1 degree Fahrenheit -- was probably caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Latest figures, for 2000, show that the United States accounted for 21 percent of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and the handful of other problem gases, compared with 14 percent for the 25-nation European Union. On a per-capita basis, Europeans produce only half the amount of greenhouse gases Americans do.

The Kyoto Protocol, effective next Feb. 16, established a schedule of emissions for 30 industrial countries that ratified it. By 2012 the European Union, for example, must cut emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels, and Japan and Canada by 6 percent.

The Kyoto cutbacks are modest compared to the problem. In a report issued here last week, climatologists from the British government's Hadley Center projected that global temperatures would most likely rise by 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the late 21st century or earlier, if carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are allowed to double -- a realistic scenario.

Computer models show such unprecedentedly swift temperature rises would shift climate zones, produce more extreme weather events, and raise sea levels via the melting of land ice and thermal expansion of oceans. Impacts are already seen in the Arctic and elsewhere, scientists report.

The US delegation sought to put the focus in Buenos Aires on long-range US programs to develop cleaner-burning energy technologies.

That's too little, too late, environmentalists say.

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