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Politicians meet in Tokyo

A ministerial conference was held in Tokyo over two days in September 1998 to continue the discussions begun at the Third Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change late last year.

Delegates from over 20 industrialized and developing nations met “behind closed doors” for a frank exchange of views that, this time, fell short of outright confrontation. The aim was to “avoid unproductive arguments on issues that cannot be resolved,” said Stuart Eizenstat, United States UnderSecretary for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs.

The United States delegation was constrained by the fact that the Republican-dominated Congress, with elections imminent, still vehemently opposes ratification of the Kyoto Protocol unless developing nations take on emissions control targets.

Ritt Bjerregaard, European Union Environment Commissioner, argued that industrialized countries should demonstrate “domestic action” before telling developing countries they must take part and urged the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol without delay.

According to Eizenstat, “meaningful participation by key developing countries is central, with their degree of commitment dependent on their emissions level and state of development.”

There is evidence that the United States may be softening its position in the run-up to the Fourth Conference of the Parties in Buenos Aires in November 1998.

European Commission spokesman Peter Jorgensen reported that Eizenstat expressed the possibility that only the richer developing nations with fairly robust economies such as South Korea and Israel might be expected to take on legally-binding emissions reductions commitments. If poorer nations such as India and China had sound environmental and economic policies and participated in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that might be seen as sufficient.

Whether or not these latter criteria will prove acceptable to developing nations remains to be seen. The reference to sound economic policy would appear to extend the scope of the climate convention and insistence on participation in the CDM might be regarded as an infringement of national autonomy.

Emissions trading will undoubtedly be a focus for discussion in Buenos Aires. The United States is refusing to accept any ceiling on the contribution trading or other flexible mechanisms can make to national emissions reductions targets (though the need for substantial action at home is accepted).

European Union ministers are expected to insist that emissions credits gained abroad should be discounted compared to emissions reductions at home and that a cap on what proportion of a national target can be met abroad is essential.

“If, as the Americans say, it’s that much cheaper to fund clean technology in China, then surely they can afford to do a little bit extra,” said one European Union official.

Until rules on trading are finalized there can be no credit taken for any deals that are made. Nevertheless, Jorgensen considers it may be two to three years before the issue is resolved and a trading regime is in place.

Despite the positive tone of the Tokyo discussions — at least in comparison to the strife in Kyoto last year — there is pessimism regarding prospects for resolution of outstanding issues and full agreement in Buenos Aires.

“We’re not going to reach a compromise with the Americans in Buenos Aires,” said one senior European diplomat. He did add, though, that he expected some progress at the November meeting on aspects of the proposed emissions trading regime and other mechanisms and on the issue of whether or not businesses, as well as governments, could enter into trading arrangements.

In an interesting development, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change — representing businesses in favour of market-based solutions to the global warming problem — has severely criticized the lack of action by the United States Congress.

Launching a new study, Eileen Claussen, Executive Director of the Pew Center, pointed out that “the cost of delay is significant, both in terms of the economic and environmental consequences. The problem is getting worse and the longer we wait, the more difficult and expensive our response will be.”

The study argues that, regardless of whether or not the Kyoto Protocol is ratified, Congress must enact laws now to ensure that American companies receive credit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Claussen, “regardless of any eventual international framework, the United States can take steps to credit reductions in gases now, and therefore encourage and reward companies that act to minimize their emissions.”

The Pew Center is supported by, amongst others, the American Electric Power Company, British Petroleum, the Enron Corporation, the United Technologies Corporation and the International Continental Energy Corporation.

The Pew Center report is particularly significant in that it sends out a strong signal that some influential members of the American business sector see economic opportunity, as well as obligation, in responding to climate change.

It was a similar shift in industry opinion that removed the final political obstacles that stood in the way of action on ozone depletion some ten years ago.

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