Road to Buenos Aires

The US strategy, calling for joint action by industrialised nations in the Pacific Rim to reduce carbon emissions, comes under fire from the European Union

By Nikhat Jamal Qaiyum
Published: Thursday 15 October 1998

Road to Buenos Aires

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)THE ninth meeting of the subsidiary bodies to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC) held in Bonn concluded its meet without resolving key issues plaguing climate negotiations. The sessions were called to discuss details of how to implement the Kyoto Protocol, signed by 150 countries in December, 1997, and pave the way for the Fourth Conference of Parties (cop-4) to be held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November this year.

The Bonn sessions were marked by the usual vested moves by the United States, differences between the developing nations and also within the European Union (HU). "You're seeing some real power politics and dirtball tactics," commented Jennifer Morgan, coordinator of the global warming campaign of a network of US environmental non-governmental organisations.

Even Michael Zammit Cutajar, executive secretary of the UNFCC, complained, "The countries are still exploring positions, putting out markers, protecting themselves before they can engage in a serious negotiation."

Close on the heels of the Bonn negotiations, the US did a volte face. Going back on its earlier country-by-country approach, it proposed a joint approach by industrialised countries on the Pacific Rim to meet targets for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) cuts. Japan has reserved comment on the US proposal but is likely to concede as some Pacific Rim countries arc inclined to back the idea. Countries that are seconding the us strategy include Russia, New Zealand and Australia.

The Kyoto Protocol has set specific targets for each industrialised nation as well as the industrialised nations as a whole to cut average annual carbon emissions by 5.2 per cent from 1990 levels between 2008 to 2012.

Japan and the US have to cut GHG emissions by six per cent and seven per cent respectively, while Russia is required to maintain its 1990 level which is believed to be relatively easy to attain. The US strategy calls for the Pacific Rim nations to jointly attain their target mainly by using Russia's unused emissions quota in exchange for environmental technical assistance from Japan and the us.

Anticipating that the "emissions trading" system would be introduced at an early stage, the US had earlier stuck to its country-by-country approach. However, stalled negotiations prompted it to seek joint action. This could virtually open the doors for emissions trading by all nations. This system would enable countries to sell the unused portion of their quota to others having difficulties achieving their targets. The trading system - a stock exchange in pollution rights - is still to be worked out.

Meanwhile, the EU has called for a ceiling on such trading and the developing countries insist on allocation of entitlements before any such activity is initiated. Even environmental groups are opposed to the us strategy saying the proposal will pave the way for the fossil fuel-dependent industrialised nations to attain their targets without making full cuts at home. "Rather than using its industrial muscle to lead, the us wants to buy paper credits from Russia," says Patrick Green, senior campaigner in energy, nuclear and climate issues for the Friends of the Earth in the United Kingdom.

Concern that the US will rely heavily on such deals has prompted the EU to press for a ban on the extent to which nations can use "supplemental" measures to meet their targets. At the same time, the US is using the possible offer of high-efficiency, energy-saving technology to gain support from developing nations. Europe falls in line
European states agree to binding national targets to combat climate change

After hectic parleying following the Bonn summit, EU member states agreed to binding national targets that each nation must undertake to honour Europe's pledge to curb carbon emissions by eight per cent.

In late June, British environment minister Michael Meacher and deputy prime minister John Prescott negotiated an accord which has been hailed in Britain as a victory for a campaign to have the European Union set a global example on cutting GHG emissions during Britain's term in the EU presidency.

Prescott called the deal "an enormous achievement and one of the key successes of our presidency", and added, "It keeps up the momentum on international action to tackle climate change and shows that Europe leads the way in turning the rhetoric of Kyoto into action." Under the agreement, each of the 15 member states must now formulate a plan to implement their promises. The main tools for the government will be higher taxes and, to a lesser extent, a trading system by which companies or countries may trade their "polluting rights".

The agreement is calculated to put the EU in a strong position when it proposes strict international rules on how to implement the cuts at the COP-4 in Buenos Aires.

However, the consensus was not reached easily. Nations wrangled over the legally binding national shares, with each percentage point entailing huge future costs for the industries. Most of the burden will fall on the energy and manufacturing industries, transport and farming.

Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria - among the "greenest" EU nations - joined Belgium and Luxembourg in demanding a smaller share of the burden than they had last agreed in 1997. Britain, with its long- term target of 20 per cent, was the only nation offering to increase its target. Several countries tried to make commitments conditional on the introduction of EU-wide emissions control measures. According to a source, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Finland were the main proponents of this proposal. Finally, over half of the EU countries won further relaxations in their national targets.

Meacher, who chaired the discussions, announced that a compromise had been struck closely linking EU'S future policies with the member states' ability to meet the targets. He insisted that the figures were binding. "There is no conditionally, there never could be," he said. Danishminister Svend Auken, who was the most insistent on making targets conditional, accepted that Denmark's target of 21 per cent cut was unconditional, but said that they could only achieve 17 per cent without EC-wide measures.

In another development, in the last week on June, over 50 countries worldwide agreed to promote measures to increase energy efficiency. Speaking at the fourth pan-European conference of environment ministers at Arhus, Denmark, Auken said the policies sent a clear signal to the global community that Europe will take the lead in energy efficiency.

Article 12 of the non-binding ministerial declaration reads: "Domestically, our nations undertake to pursue immediately significant reductions in GHG. We firmly believe that these reductions can be achieved cost-effectively.... Internationally, we must maintain the momentum by making progress at Buenos Aires on the outstanding issues left by Kyoto.

"Flexible mechanisms such as international emissions trading, joint implementation and clean development mechanism shall be supplemental to domestic actions.... These flexibilities, in particular trading, should help us achieve overall abatement of GHG that would otherwise occur."

Although the guidelines adopted at Arhus are not legally binding, the fact that a large number of countries signed the pact means that it could be politically significant. Canada and the US, however, did not sign the statement. According to them, the requirements of the guidelines contradict the principle of the Kyoto Protocol, which permits countries to reach environmental goals in accordance with national circumstances.

However, by November, when the cop-4 is scheduled to be held in Buenos Aires, the excuses might be different. But, more likely than not, the negotiations will again be stalled on some pretext or the other.

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