On-site in Buenos Aires

Published January 1, 1999

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina–When Peter Burleigh, the acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, signed the Kyoto Protocol here on behalf of the Clinton administration, he symbolically–but not legally–committed the United States to achieving the emission reduction targets spelled out in the climate change treaty.

The fact that Burleigh, not President Clinton, signed the accord at the Buenos Aires global warming summit in November gave strength to critics’ claim that the treaty was too damaged and too controversial for Clinton to lend his weight to it.

What will most likely happen between now and the end of President Clinton’s term is that a few developing nations will agree to emission caps. However, the nations with substantial greenhouse gas emissions, such as China and Mexico, will almost certainly not be among them. As a result, it is unlikely the U.S. Senate will ratify the treaty, given strong sentiment there against U.S. participation in the absence of participation by major developing countries.

By deciding against sending President Clinton or Vice President Gore to Buenos Aires, the administration conceded defeat. It could have claimed victory at the summit only if it had gained concessions from enough developing nations to make the treaty palatable to the U.S. Senate. But the only developing nations to commit to emission reductions of their own were Argentina and Kazakhstan . . . and it is likely they made such commitments only because they stand to make money by selling emission credits to industrialized nations. Argentina, for example, could have 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 the 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 when it insisted that OPEC nations be compensated for the billions of dollars in lost oil revenue that would result from implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. The already remote possibility of an agreement in Buenos Aires was thus made even more remote.

On November 12, the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA) and the Global Climate coalition released statements opposing the U.S. representative’s signature on the protocol. Noted the AAMA, “The Clinton administration acknowledges that the protocol is a ‘work in progress,’ does not meet the requirements set unanimously last year by the Senate for signing the Protocol, and is not ready to be submitted to the Senate for approval. We believe that if the Protocol is not ready to be submitted, it is not ready to sign.”

Comments made by environmentalists reinforce the conclusion that the Buenos Aires summit was a failure for supporters of the Kyoto Protocol.

Although such groups as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund cautiously praised Burleigh’s signing, their disappointment with the outcome of the conference was abundantly clear.

Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, summed it up best, commenting, “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 added, “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 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.”

Federovisky also suggested that many ministers trying to negotiate often didn’t know what many of the accord’s provisions really meant, and ended up debating the same topics over again.

One of the most significant consequences of the conference is that the U.S. won’t be able to force future Conference of the Parties 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.

Without the participation of the developing world, Kyoto as a binding legal treaty is 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 this administration’s environment policy and that of any future like-minded administration.

John Carlisle attended the Buenos Aires Global Warming Summit for the National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, DC. The center’s global warming information center is at