TOKYO – Two centuries after the dawn of the industrial age, the world on Wednesday takes its first concerted step to roll back the emission of "greenhouse gases" believed linked to climate change with the enactment of the Kyoto (search) global warming pact.
The agreement, negotiated in Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto in 1997 and ratified by 140 nations, calls on 35 industrialized countries to rein in the release of carbon dioxide (search) and five other gases from the burning of oil and coal and other processes.
Its impact, however, will be limited by the absence of the United States, the world's leader in greenhouse gas (search) emissions.
Proponents say the stakes are high: the gases are believed to trap heat in the atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures that are melting glaciers, raising ocean levels and threatening dramatic and potentially damaging climate change in the future.
"The tools for keeping climate change under control, such as renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures, are developed and ready to use," said Greenpeace International official Stephanie Tunmore. "There is now a price on climate pollution and penalties for polluters. The switch to a carbon economy begins here."
Implementation of the agreement was delayed by a struggle to meet the requirement that countries accounting for 55 percent of the world's emissions ratify it. That goal was reached last year — nearly seven years after the pact had been negotiated — with Russia's approval.
The Clinton administration signed the protocol in 1997, but the U.S. Senate refused to ratify it, citing potential damage to the U.S. economy and insisting that it also cover countries with fast-growing economies such as China and India.
In Japan, the host to the 1997 conference and a tireless supporter of the pact, the enactment — at midnight New York time — was being met with a mixture of pride and mounting worry that the world's second-largest economy is unprepared to meet its emission reduction targets.
Under Kyoto, the targets vary by region: The European Union is committed to cutting emissions to 8 percent below 1990 levels by 2012; the United States agreed to a 7 percent reduction before President Bush denounced the pact in 2001.
The White House has contended that complying with the treaty's requirement could cost millions of jobs, many of them to places like India and China, both signers of Kyoto but exempted from any limits on greenhouse gases.
"We are still learning about the science of climate change," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday. In the meantime, McClellan said, "We have made an unprecedented commitment to reduce the growth of greenhouse gas emissions in a way that continues to grow our economy."
Elsewhere, officials made solemn pledges Tuesday to fulfill Japan's requirement under the treaty to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other so-called greenhouse gases by 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012.
"Although the hurdle is high, we ask the Japanese people, including industries, for their cooperation," said Environment Minister Yuriko Koike.
The concerns are many. The Japanese government says many industries will need quick action to meet the goals, studies show much of the country is behind on implementation, and critics say Japan lacks a coherent climate-change policy.
Japan had an elaborate celebration planned for the enactment of the agreement on Wednesday at the convention hall where it was negotiated in December 1997.
A series of speeches and a panel discussion was planned with environmental officials, experts and activists, as well as 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya. The festivities were featuring messages from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and environmental officials around the world.
As the agreement comes into force, Japan is scrambling to put together a strategy to make sure it meets its obligations. Some officials are pondering a "carbon tax" to punish polluters — a move opposed by business — while others favor expansion of nuclear power and promotion of energy-saving technologies.
Tetsunari Ida, executive director of Tokyo's International Sustainable Energy Policy Institute, said the effort was suffering from a lack of coordination between the Environmental Ministry and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI.
"Those two ministries are taking two separate climate change strategies," Ida said.
A METI report this month showed that 11 of 30 top industries — steel and power among them — risked failing to meet targets without quick action. Thirteen others had already cleared preliminary goals and were expected to meet the goals, the report said.
One area where Japan has been especially active is carbon trading — a system under which governments have allocated carbon dioxide quotas to industrial facilities. Those which emit less gas than allowed can sell the "credit" to other companies who emit too much.
Makoto Katagiri, whose Natsource Japan is acting as a credit broker between Japanese and foreign companies, estimated in a study for the World Bank that Japan bought 41 percent of the carbon credits on the international market last year.
"From this figure, you can imagine how serious the Japanese companies [are]," Katagiri said.