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Climate accord a relief but not a fait accompli

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BONN, Germany — With a deal finally reached on implementing the 4-year-old Kyoto Protocol to combat climate change, ministers and environmentalists are expressing relief.

But much remains to be done before its rules become reality — a goal made more difficult since the United States abandoned the accord.

A 48-hour session reaching well into Monday saved the accord, which appeared close to collapse under Japanese opposition to binding sanctions for violators of the treaty.

Those were dropped as nations pushed to avoid a repeat of last November's failure in The Hague, Netherlands, to agree on rules for reducing industrial pollution.

"Nobody wanted a failure," said Michael Zammit Cutajar, the top U.N. official dealing with climate change. "The deadline really bit this time."

Still, Monday's outcome left Tokyo's intentions on ratifying the treaty unclear and the United States — the world's leading producer of greenhouse gases — no closer to rejoining it.

President Bush rejected the pact in March, calling it flawed and harmful to the U.S. economy.

With environment ministers gone, experts from 178 countries will spend the rest of this week hammering out technical details to back up the political agreement, which clears the way for more nations to ratify the protocol.

"We made a tremendous political advance today," Cutajar said Monday. "If there's sufficient confidence," the next U.N. climate conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, in October could "start to look ahead beyond the issues that we have been dealing with now," he added.

To take force, the accord must be ratified by 55 countries responsible for 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, blamed for heating up the atmosphere. The 30 nations that so far have ratified the protocol include none of the world's largest industrial powers.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed that the protocol was not acceptable to the United States. He said the United States has a good record on environmental issues and wasn't shirking its responsibilities to help reduce greenhouse gases.

"We are committed to working with all nations of the world to find a consensus in the near future," Powell told reporters in Tokyo. "Hopefully, we can present some new ideas."

Japanese Environment Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi hailed the Bonn agreement as a "vital step" toward bringing the Kyoto accord into force. But "the widest possible participation" is needed, she said, reflecting Japan's ambiguity on whether it will push ahead with ratification if Washington stays out.

"The future of the protocol now very much depends on what Japan does," said Bill Hare of the environmental group Greenpeace. "It's now time for Japan to come clean on its intentions."

Delegates negotiated over financing, emission credits for forests soaking up carbon dioxide, mechanisms for offsetting pollution reduction targets as well as sanctions.

In a major concession by the European Union, the accord allows countries to offset their obligations to reduce industrial pollution by counting the proper management of forests and farmlands that absorb carbon dioxide, known as carbon "sinks."

The Kyoto accord calls for emissions to be reduced by 5.2 percent from 1990 levels. But environmental groups said that because of the greater allowance for sinks the actual cut in emissions will be much less.

"This agreement here will probably permit, if all the loopholes are used, emissions to increase rather than decrease," Hare argued. "In environmental terms, it's a lost opportunity."

European officials conceded the deal was weaker than they had hoped, but insisted that making concessions was a worthwhile price to pay.

A group representing 140 companies that had pushed for a deal in Bonn welcomed the agreement. Under the treaty, businesses that invest in technology that reduce emissions in developing countries can receive credit against their own emissions back home, creating an incentive for these projects.

"Since yesterday, the business risk is a lot smaller" for companies that invest in programs to foster environmentally sound development, said Paul Metz of the European Business Council for a Sustainable Energy Future.