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Stalemate in climate protection

Emilio Lèbre La Rovere comments on the main political issues which dominated the latest round of the climate negotiations in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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

Once again, the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held amidst a world financial crisis. As in Kyoto one year earlier, the Fourth Conference of the Parties met in November 1998 at the same time as a number of countries were menaced by the instability of global financial markets. Within this context, perhaps one cannot be totally disappointed by the final outcome at Buenos Aires.

Maybe the expectations were higher than it would be reasonable to achieve given that the Third Conference of the Parties had made the first concrete step towards global climate protection by adopting the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol states that, in the period 2008 to 2012, greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized countries shall be, overall, reduced by 5.2 per cent compared with 1990 levels. The way to get there, however, still needed a lot of work.

There were many issues still to be dealt with.

How might an emissions trading system between Annex I countries be established?

Under what modalities would credits for avoided emissions and appropriate funds be granted to joint implementation projects between Annex I and developing countries through the Clean Development Mechanism created in Kyoto?

So-called flexibility mechanisms, such as the Clean Development Mechanism, were controversial from their inception. Accordingly, the details of implementation were left to be discussed at the Fourth Conference of the Parties.

Actually, the Kyoto Protocol will only enter into force after its signature (by governments) and legal ratification (by national congresses) by 55 Parties, representing at least 55 per cent of 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from Annex I countries. This means that ratification by the United States and Russia, with respectively 36.1 and 17.4 per cent of that total, is crucial. However, even before the Third Conference of the Parties met in Kyoto, the United States Senate had approved an unprecedented resolution warning that the United States ratification of any commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions should be conditional upon:

  • the absence of any costs to the American economy (that is, no GDP losses nor unemployment increase); and,
  • the participation of developing countries in the effort to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Consequently, the Fourth Conference of the Parties was preceded by intense United States diplomatic pressure on some emerging economies — Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, amongst others — to force their commitment to voluntary targets of emissions reduction. This attitude may be seen as using, once again, an international agreement as a tool of North-South domination.

In fact, the Argentinean president announced during the Conference his acceptance of targets regarding his country’s future greenhouse gas emissions, if they apply to their expected growth instead of reducing their current levels. Acting as chairman of the Conference, through the position as host country, the Argentinean government pushed for including in the agenda the adoption of a similar position by developing countries. A strong negative reaction from the Group of 77 + China ensued, which eventually resulted in this point not being included in the agenda.

Sadly enough, this disagreement, at the very departure of the discussions, poisoned the atmosphere of negotiations throughout the Conference. In the end there was no consensus reached on the modalities of implementing the flexibility mechanisms to achieve the targets established in the Kyoto Protocol. In particular, the operation of the Clean Development Mechanism and the capping of emission reductions allowed outside the borders of Annex I countries remained extremely controversial issues.

Thus, after two weeks of intense debate, the main outcome of the Fourth Session of the Conference of the Parties was the establishment of a Work Programme to set within a two-year deadline the concrete modalities of the implementation mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol (see page 26).

Still, the big question remains. Will it be possible for the Kyoto Protocol to enter into force without ratification by the United States?

In Buenos Aires, the American government signed the Protocol, but the powerful coal, oil and car industry’s coalition lobby against the reduction of American emissions also showed its strength in a document delivered to the United States delegation. This suggested that 80 per cent of the United States emission reduction targets established by the Kyoto Protocol be achieved abroad. In face of these vested interests and the United States Senate’s hostility, most observers agree that it is quite improbable that the current United States administration will propose to its Congress the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol within the next two years.

So, in short, the key issue for the protection of the global climate is the real willingness of Annex I countries to accept their responsibility in taking the initial concrete steps towards greenhouse gas emission reductions. This positive action would pave the way for developing countries to also contribute to the achievement of the climate treaty’s goals, in a second stage, through the curbing of the expected future growth of their own greenhouse gas emissions. Prospects, however, remain bleak while attitudes such as the resolution adopted by the American Senate prevail.

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: emilio@ppe.ufrj.br.

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, PO Box 260 124, D-53153 Bonn, Germany. Fax: 49-228-8151999. Email: secretariat@unfccc.de. Web: http://www.unfccc.de/.

On the Web

The UNFCCC Secretariat provides the text of the Climate Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Buenos Aires Plan of Action in electronic format for downloading.

Additional comment on the results of the Buenos Aires meeting and news of ongoing developments can be accessed via the Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary Newswatch service.

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