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Weather Eye

Tiempo's roving reporter, Weather Eye, comments on the issues of the day.

As the hot air dissipates over Kyoto, Weather Eye reports on the outcome of the meeting and considers what comes next.

In early December 1997, officials from 160 countries met in Kyoto at the Third Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP3) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The main item on the agenda was to strengthen the treaty by the adoption of a protocol containing legally-binding emissions controls for the industrialized nations, a process set in motion some two years earlier at COP1 through the Berlin Mandate.

At times it looked as though COP3 might prove an outright failure as conflict threatened to sabotage any hope of agreement. But, after overrunning by 16 hours, the meeting did manage to agree on certain key matters though it did postpone resolution of others to COP4.

The new protocol commits the industrialized nations to reduce overall levels of emissions of six greenhouse gases by 5.2 per cent averaged over the period 2008-2012. In the case of the major greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, the reduction is to be from 1990 levels. For three long-lived industrial gases, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride, the baseline year can be 1990 or 1995.

As emissions have risen during the 1990s despite the commitment to stabilization in the UNFCCC, the 5.2 per cent cut will, in practice, amount to an overall reduction of more like 10 per cent from expected levels for the year 2000.

The emissions reduction commitment varies by nation. Some countries, Switzerland, the states of Central and Eastern Europe and the European Union, take on cuts of 8 per cent; others may increase their emissions. Australia can increase emissions by 8 per cent and Iceland by 10 per cent.

Flexibility also extends to the manner in which nations can meet their commitments. The Kyoto Protocol provides for a “clean development mechanism.” This means that one country can finance emissions reductions in another industrialized nation and take credit for the outcome. Moreover, an emissions trading mechanism will permit industrialized nations to buy and sell “excess” emissions credits. Details of these schemes await resolution at COP4.

In keeping with the Berlin Mandate, developing countries are not covered by any formal emissions control schedule.

Michael Zammit Cutajar, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, pronounced the meeting a success, saying that “the Kyoto Protocol provides for real and significant greenhouse gas reductions.” But COP3 was marred by a very public display of disagreement and many observers felt that the loopholes left by the Kyoto Protocol could seriously undermine the agreement.

Three strands emerged during the meeting as major sources of disagreement. First, there was the question of what level of emissions reductions would prove acceptable. The United States delegates arrived at the meeting with a proposed target of stabilization by about 2010. The European Union, in contrast, argued for an emissions reduction of 15 per cent by that time.

The related question of the baseline year, 1990 or 1995, also proved contentious. As emissions should have remained stable over this period, in line with the original UNFCCC commitment, the suggestion that 1995 should be adopted was vigorously opposed on the grounds that it rewarded those nations who had not honoured that obligation.

Second was the issue of flexibility. Advocates argued that emissions trading, for example, was the most efficient means of achieving significant reductions. Others, particularly amongst the southern delegates, saw this as a way for the industrialized nations to avoid responsibility for their own emissions.

The third area of tension was between North and South. The Berlin Mandate explicitly excluded developing nations from any control commitment at this stage. But the US delegates were constrained by Senate to make involvement of the major developing nations a condition of any emissions reduction agreement. It is not clear, in fact, that the United States will ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

So what next? This observer was left with a dominant feeling of relief that some form of agreement was reached, tempered by scepticism regarding prospects for the future.

Scepticism, because we are, after all, only taking the first precautionary step in dealing with global warming. Even these strengthened commitments will do little to avert future climate change. How will we fare if and when more substantial action is required?

Scepticism, because the gulf between North and South was never more evident than at Kyoto. A gulf deepened by what must be seen as a lack of good faith — a shirking of responsibility — on the part of certain industrialized nations. If that divide is to be bridged then much must be done over coming years to build confidence, to replace conflict with cooperation.

There is a clear need, for example, for greater recognition and support for the many emissions control initiatives already being adopted by southern nations regardless of their formal obligations.

And greater attention must be paid to improving the ability of developing nations to cope with present-day hazards such as the El Niño effects, flooding and typhoon damage as reported elsewhere in this issue of Tiempo.

The threat of future climate change will never impress those who face disaster today.

On the Web

Earth Negotiations Bulletin

Information Unit for Conventions

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

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