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From Kyoto to Buenos Aires

Emilio Lèbre La Rovere comments on the outcome of Kyoto with particular reference to Brazil.

The author is a Professor in the Energy Planning Program at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In early 1997 there were high expectations on the outcome of the Third Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The meeting took place in Kyoto, Japan, from the 1st to the 10th of December 1997.

On the agenda for the December meeting was the intended adoption of firm commitments by industrialized countries (OECD countries plus countries with economies in transition which are included in Annex I of the UNFCCC) on reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases.

The failure of industrialized countries to adopt legally binding targets and timetables during the UNCED meeting held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 had been extensively criticized by environmentalists. Matters were looking different in early 1997 — the world economy was behaving well and there seemed to be no excuse for the richer nations not to do something concrete about the menace of climate change. However, problems started in mid-1997 with the decision by the United States’ Senate that no commitments would be acceptable unless there was no harm to the economy and developing countries were also aboard the effort to mitigate emissions.

Then came the massive media campaign in North America sponsored by a powerful lobby of industrial vested interests, widely disseminating the notion that any emissions reduction target eventually adopted in Kyoto would have devastating effects with an increase in the price of oil products and in unemployment rates. Finally, an unexpected financial crisis in Asian markets put even Japan in economic trouble on the eve of the meeting, jeopardizing the constructive role usually expected from the host country.

As the first day of the conference drew near, expectations had reversed with many participants indicating a lack of confidence that there would be any agreement reached at Kyoto on concrete targets and timetables for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The less pessimistic ones still hoped for a confirmation of the main goal set in Rio in 1992 as a desirable result. That is, the stabilization of greenhouse gas emissions at the same levels as of 1990.

In light of the record of progress since 1992, one cannot be totally disappointed by the final protocol agreed in Kyoto.

After all, in the commitment period 2008 to 2012, greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries should be reduced overall by 5.2 per cent compared with the 1990 levels. This first step forward cannot be seen as unfeasible, as a number of flexible arrangements were allowed for easing the task of industrialized countries.

Six greenhouse gases are accounted for in the national targets in accordance with their global warming potential — carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride. The inclusion of credits for the effects of increasing sinks (for example, through forestry) was also ensured.

Differentiation amongst parties was accepted, leading, for example, to a final commitment of 6 per cent emissions reduction in Canada and Japan, 7 per cent in the United States and 8 per cent in the European Union as a whole (with further differentiation within Europe as already previously agreed to by member countries). The special situation of countries with economies in transition was also accommodated by introducing flexibility in terms of the base year chosen (allowing for years other than 1990 when the region was facing a crisis with emissions levels lower than usual) as well as lower emission reductions, for example, 6 per cent in Hungary and Poland, 5 per cent in Croatia and zero per cent in Russia and the Ukraine.

Some countries, such as New Zealand, were allowed to keep their 1990 emissions level. Others were even entitled to a slight increase in their emissions. Norway was allowed a 1 per cent increase, Australia 8 per cent and Iceland 10 per cent. Trading of emission reduction credits among Annex I countries was also allowed and a global emission trading system approved in principle. Details of an emissions trading system are to be negotiated at the Fourth Conference of the Parties which will be held in November 1998 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Even joint implementation projects with credits between Annex 1 and developing countries were admitted through the creation of a “clean development mechanism.” The concept of credit “banking” was also incorporated in the protocol. That is, that emission reductions over and above those needed to meet immediate requirements can be validated and saved for use in meeting future requirements. Finally, no commitments towards emission reductions were required from non-Annex I countries.

All of which illustrates that the compromises within the Kyoto Protocol provide a flexible framework for the dynamic evolution of the Convention’s implementation. More stringent targets should be added in the future in order to meet the ultimate goal of the Convention which is... “greenhouse gas concentrations stabilized at a level compatible with sustainable development, food production and the preservation of ecosystems...” as the currently proposed emission reductions are clearly insufficient to this end.

The main gap to be filled is the absence of clear penalties for non-compliance with targets. For example, the Brazilian government proposal at Kyoto included a fine, or penalty, equivalent to a US$10/ton of carbon of emissions above the ceilings to be channelled towards the automatic financing of a clean development fund. The decision about such an enforcement mechanism deserves the utmost priority at the Fourth Conference of the Parties in order to make it fully effective within the Protocol’s implementation.

However, the Kyoto Protocol first needs to enter into force, which does not seem to be an easy task to ensure before the Fourth Conference of the Parties in Buenos Aires next November. Legal ratification of the Kyoto Protocol by 55 countries is required. This means that, with 38 Annex I countries ratifying, at least 17 developing countries must also ratify. This does not seem to be a major obstacle, as the obligations of non-Annex I countries under the protocol are limited to formulate mitigation and adaptation programmes. The main problem is that ratification by Annex I countries, representing at least 55 per cent of 1990 emissions is also required. The United States position then becomes of crucial importance, given its weight as the world’s greatest greenhouse gas emitter.

In the light of the above analysis the concerns of the United States’ Senate about the need of non-Annex I countries participation looks to be wholly unjustifiable. One of the key UNFCCC principles is the common but differentiated responsibility of its Parties. It is widely recognized that Annex I countries are not only currently responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions, but have been the main contributors to the build up of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Of course, greenhouse gas emissions from non-Annex I countries are bound to increase in the future in response to the huge investments in infrastructure required to meet their development needs.

Under the assumptions of the mid-range IPCC scenario (IS92a), greenhouse gas emissions from developing countries would catch up with emissions from Annex I countries around the year 2040. However, as the Brazilian government proposal to Kyoto has shown, under the same scenario assumptions, the actual accumulated contribution to global warming from developing countries would equal the contribution from Annex I countries only one hundred years later!

Even leaving aside the historical responsibility of industrialized countries in the building up of the greenhouse effect, the recent record of emissions growth during the nineties is illustrative of the efforts already being made by some developing countries to curb the increase of their emissions. For example, it has been demonstrated that, since 1990, the growth of carbon dioxide emissions from the energy system related either to GDP or population growth in Latin America has been lower than in the United States.

A good discussion of this is in the report presented at the 1997 conference, Rio+5, “Is Energy currently Contributing to Sustainable Development?” by the Global Energy Observatory. This report illustrates how important to the achievement of the UNFCCC goals is the change of consumption patterns towards more sustainable lifestyles in industrialized countries, also because of the indirect effect on future choices to be made by developing countries.

In so far as Brazil’s commitments are concerned, the country is making a significant contribution to the UNFCCC by maintaining an important ethanol programme. This is to fuel 4.5 million cars and to run the remaining of the nation’s car fleet on gasohol, at a cost higher than with gasoline. No similar effort is to be seen in the United States.

In consideration of all this, the United States’ Senate position can only be seen as an attempt to turn the Framework Convention on Climate Change into a new tool for North-South domination.

Pressure from the American public, from the United States Administration and from the international community will be essential to overcome this and ensure that the United States ratifies the Kyoto Protocol before the Buenos Aires conference in November 1998. This is a key step towards the Fourth Conference of the Parties’ success.

Further information

Emilio Lèbre La Rovere, PPE/COPPE, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Rua General Mariante, 98/102, Rio de Janeiro CEP 22221-100, Brazil. Fax: 55-21-5657032. Email:

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