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Tuesday, 21 November, 2000, 16:44 GMT
US climate plan 'unacceptable'
President Jacques Chirac speaks with Dutch Queen Beatrix
The French have led the EU attack on the Americans
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby in The Hague

Hopes of a possible breakthrough at the UN climate conference here have been dashed by the French Environment Minister.

Dominique Voynet dismissed a US proposal on using forests to absorb carbon, saying the European Union would not negotiate on it.


What the US is doing is completely calling into question the commitments made at Kyoto

Dominique Voynet
She accused the Americans of seeking to "unravel" the Kyoto Protocol, the international climate treaty.

The US, she said, was trying to destroy the work of the last three years.

Ms Voynet was speaking at an EU press briefing. France currently holds the EU presidency.

Carbon sinks

The US plan, announced less than 24 hours ago, concerned the use of what are called "carbon sinks" - forests and farmlands which can absorb carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the main greenhouse gases believed to be accelerating the climate's natural variability.

The American chief negotiator, Frank Loy, said the US was offering to cut its use of these sinks from 300 million tonnes a year - the maximum scientifically possible - to 125 million tonnes.

Environmental campaign groups immediately derided the plan as worthless, because, they said, it would not result in any cuts in US domestic emissions of CO2. But several delegations said they would study it.

The French minister told the briefing: "We are not here to sweep aside proposals.

"But having done some work we feel the US proposal cannot be seen as a compromise position.

"What the US is doing is completely calling into question the commitments made at Kyoto" (the Japanese city where the protocol was agreed in 1997).

'Loopholes'

Ms Voynet went on: "Far from reducing greenhouse gases with this proposal, which is far too loose on sinks, we could see the gases increasing.

"If we go along with it, the US could be one of the main beneficiaries."

Conference leaders make a point of arriving by scooter
The mayor of The Hague gave scooters to delegates
She said the delegates were at the conference to apply the protocol's contents without seeking loopholes.

"Some people are seeking to find escape routes," she said.

"We are not going to be led down a road which would destroy the work we have done over the last three years.

"There's no compromise that can be made on the US proposal. We don't want little loopholes to be introduced into the negotiations through compromises which are ways of unravelling the protocol."

US-Euro breach

The Swedish Environment Minister, Kjell Larsson, said that if the American plan were adopted, it would give the US the leeway to increase its CO2 emissions to 8-9% more than it was producing in 1990.

Under the protocol, it is committed to a reduction below the 1990 level of 7%.

There had been hopes that the US plan might start to heal its breach with Europe.

The EU argues that all the countries which have emissions reduction targets under the protocol (at the moment, only the developed countries) should achieve at least 50% of those cuts at home.

The US and its supporters want to be able to make unlimited use of sinks and other "flexibility mechanisms", in effect by paying other countries to reduce their emissions.

'Important tool'

And the picture is further clouded by the fact that some countries, for example Russia and Ukraine, were given unrealistically high targets under the protocol.

So they can now sell the US, or any other buyer, the "right" to emissions to which they themselves are entitled, but which their battered economies are in no position to make.

The president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change is Eileen Claussen, a former US assistant secretary of state, who was responsible for developing American climate change policy at the State Department.

She told BBC News Online: "Both the US proposal and the EU reaction suggest to me that we are still very far apart on sinks. They're a tool, an important one, and it's important to get them right.

"And perhaps the only way to do that is to go away and work on them, then come back in a year's time."

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