Time to take stock

Environment leaders to decide the future of the climate change convention

By Clifford Polycarp
Published: Wednesday 15 December 2004

Time to take stock

-- (Credit: Emkay)As the world's environment leaders gather for the tenth anniversary of the un Framework Convention on Climate Change (unfccc) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from December 15-17, they will approach the problem of changing climatic conditions due to global warming with the belief that the scale of the problem is measured in centuries. With this approach, they run the risk of not addressing the problem without the sense of urgency that it deserves.

The Tenth Conference of Parties (cop-10) to the unfccc begins on December 6 with meetings of the subsidiary bodies of the convention (see box: Issues). However, panel discussions scheduled for environment ministers and other heads of delegation during the last three days are sure to be closely watched. They will assess the convention's accomplishment so far, deliberate over present challenges and provide direction for future discussion, analysis and action.

A background note for the panel discussions, prepared by the president-designate of cop-10, states in the very first paragraph: "Ten years is not long in the history of a problem whose scale is measured in centuries." While this approach justifies the meagre progress of the last ten years as significant, which the note subsequently does, environment ministers may just miss the point -- the concentrations of heat trapping carbon dioxide (co2) in the atmosphere are rising, and rising fast. In March 2004, it stood at 379 parts per million (ppm), increasing by 3 ppm in just one year. Compare this with the average annual growth rate of 1.8 ppm per year in the 1990s.

Overall co2 concentrations are also climbing at the rate of 10 per cent every 20 years. And the total greenhouse gas emissions of all industrialised countries, excluding countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, alone increased by 8.2 per cent in the last decade. The Kyoto Protocol provides a framework for industrialised countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The treaty becomes legally binding in less than three months. However, it sets modest emission targets only upto 2012. To reach the level of co2 concentrations that existed during pre-industrial times -- 280 ppm -- aggressive targets would have to set for the period after 2012, at the same time allowing developing nations the space to develop. An issue ministers have to grapple with at cop-10, though negotiations on this do not begin until the next cop.

Other aspects ministers need to dwell over include identifying measures to reduce the vulnerability of the poor to climate change by improving their capacity to adapt to such changes, or developing and promoting technologies to mitigate climate change or adapt to it. They will seek ways to make climate change mitigation policies a priority in economic and development planning, also addressing the resulting impact of mitigation policies on developing economies dependent on energy exports.

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