10th climate change meet shows how weak the will to combat global warming has become

By Clifford Polycarp
Published: Saturday 15 January 2005


with Russia's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is back on track. But, what collective action can be expected in the future to combat climate change? At the Tenth Conference of Parties (cop-10) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (unfccc) held December 6-17, 2004, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the resounding answer was: none. Political will for concerted global solutions has seriously waned. Countries, it now seems, prefer vague strategy: not just the US-- customarily associated with such statements -- but other key countries, including Russia, and even Italy, now suggest that future commitments to cut GHG emissions be on a 'voluntary basis'.

At cop-10, developing country groups were further polarised in the debate on adaptation to climate change. Small island developing states (sids) like Micronesia, Tuvalu and Maldives, and least developed countries (ldcs) like Bangladesh and Tanzania, called for urgent action to help them adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. But oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar diluted those calls, insisting their losses -- likely to be incurred as the world moves away from fossil fuels -- be addressed.

Kyoto's undoing
The Kyoto Protocol, a legally-binding treaty under the unfccc, requires 30 industrialised countries to cut their ghg emissions by an average of 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels. This commitment, however, expires in 2012. Under the treaty, parties to the protocol will have to start negotiating post-2012 commitments in 2005. But the us and Australia, leading emitters of ghgs, have declined to ratify the protocol for long. So, to accommodate them -- particularly the us, the world's largest emitter of ghgs -- host Argentina proposed a series of seminars, before cop-11, to discuss the future of unfccc and the Kyoto Protocol.

But the us felt this was too premature a suggestion and was also reluctant to have any written or oral report of the seminar. With the European Union (eu insisting on a report as a modest outcome of any discussion, it eventually took an agreement between the us and the eu to secure one workshop of government experts -- only one -- to be held in Bonn, Germany, in May 2005. This would be an informal exchange to discuss actions post Kyoto, in which developing nations like China and India fear that the world would insist on their joining the treaty to take on legal commitments to reduce ghg emissions.

Then in the wee hours of Saturday morning, December 18, 2004, the eu-us agreement on the seminar hit a roadblock, when India called for an amendment to the document. It wanted a guarantee that the deal struck next year would not lead to carbon reduction commitments being imposed on developing nations. Almost all except China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia opposed this. The eu felt that the outcome of future talks should not be prejudiced. The final document states that the seminar is to be conducted "without prejudices to any future negotiations, commitments, process, framework or mandate under the convention and the Kyoto Protocol". Its proceedings are to be circulated amongst all members.

The varied interests of countries on the future of the convention and the protocol were also visible in the panel discussions involving ministers. Pieter van Geel, state secretary for housing, spatial planning and the environment, the Netherlands, called for a clear target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 c over pre-industrial levels. He also stressed that postponing action would make the work of adapting to climate change more difficult. To achieve the target proposed by Geel, Germany suggested that emissions be halved by 2050 and also called for a binding medium-term goal to reduce emissions by 2020. He also called for decoupling of gross domestic product and ghg emissions growth in developing countries.

In contrast to such calls for time-bound specific targets, Russia's chief of hydrometeorology and environment, Alexander Bedritzky, proposed voluntary commitments. Paula Dobriansky, the us' under secretary for global affairs in the state department, stressed that "economic growth and environmental protection" should go hand-in-hand, implying that curtailing emissions could not stymie economic growth. Similarly, India's Union minister of environment and forests emphasised that " ghg emissions in developing countries will grow if they are to achieve sustainable development and poverty eradication."

Divided South
The work programme of the last three consecutive cops has included an attempt to mainstream issues relating to adaptation to the adverse impacts of climate change. At the onset of cop-10 as well, Raul Estrada-Oyuela, the lead negotiator of Argentina, had said that this cop-10 would be 'the Adaptation cop '. But with oil-exporting nations led by Saudi Arabia raising the question of 'adaptation to response measures', the debate got complicated, resulting then in a weak decision. 'Adaptation to response measures' implies the changes required in economies dependent on fossil fuels to adapt to policy measures that other countries might take to combat climate change: measures that move them away from using fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia claims it will lose at least us $19 billion a year by 2010 as a result of industrialised nations' policies to reduce ghg emissions.

Despite appeals by island nations like Micronesia that the urgent adaptation needs of sids not be mixed up with those of oil-producing countries, the stalemate dragged on. An extra day was added to cop-10 to complete work in this area. The main bone of contention was whether the adaptation programme of work -- discussed under the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technical Advice -- should focus on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation in general, or specifically on impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation 'to climate change'. Tuvalu preferred the latter and prevailed. The Buenos Aires Programme of Work on Adaptation and Response Measures refers only to the latter: it envisages implementation of measures for adaptation to the impacts of climate change, as well as activities on modelling and economic diversification regarding the impacts of putting in place response measures.

The initial commitments to cut ghg emissions under the Kyoto Protocol was seen as inadequate. Even when the treaty was negotiated, it was known that the world would need much deeper cuts and the developed nations would have to bear most of that burden. With the us choosing to stay out of it, the impact of the treaty will be nominal. Moreover, other industrialised countries that have signed the treaty are also falling behind on their commitments. Even during cop-10, the developed nations were not willing to support developing countries to adapt to climate change. Decisions on the funding of ldcs' National Adaptation Programmes of Action were unduly delayed. Now, through the seminar to be held next year to discuss the future of climate change, they want some developing countries to take on legally binding commitments to cut their emissions. In doing so, they are moving the burden of their inaction to backs of the poor.


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