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News from Buenos Aires

Pak Sum Low highlights the major issues debated at the The Fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and summarizes the key resolutions that constitute the latest state of play in the climate negotiations.

The author is a Senior Programme Officer covering climate change and ozone depletion in the Global Environment Facility Coordination Office at UNEP in Nairobi, Kenya.

The Fourth Conference of the Parties (COP4) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held from the 2nd to the 13th of November 1998 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The meeting was attended by over 5,000 participants. More than 100 seminars and workshops were also held as side events during the two-week period.

The major outcome of COP4 was the Buenos Aires Plan of Action that commits Parties to a decision-making schedule intended to finalize implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.

During the meeting, delegates from 170 governments deliberated decisions for the Conference of the Parties during the ninth sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice and the Subsidiary Body for Implementation.

The Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA), chaired by Kok Kee Chow from Malaysia, considered, amongst other issues:

  • land-use change and forestry;
  • impact of single projects on emissions;
  • research and systematic observations;
  • methodological issues;
  • scientific and methodological aspects of the proposal by Brazil suggesting that the allocation of responsibilities amongst different emitters may be based on their actions as measured by the increase in global temperatures rather than by emissions; and,
  • the development and transfer of technology.

The Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI), chaired by Bakary Kante of Senegal, considered, amongst other issues:

  • implementation of UNFCCC Article 4.8 (relating to the special needs and concerns of developing country parties arising from the adverse effects of climate change and/or the impact of the implementation of response measures) and Article 4.9 (relating to the special needs and special situations of the least developed countries in their actions with regard to funding and transfer of technology);
  • review of information/possible decisions under Decision 9/CP.1 (relating to UNFCCC Article 4.2(f)) which addresses amendments to the UNFCCC Annexes);
  • second national communications from Annex 1 Parties;
  • national communications from non-Annex 1 Parties; and,
  • the financial mechanism.

Issues related to the Kyoto Protocol were considered in joint SBI/SBSTA sessions.

A high-level segment, which heard statements from over 100 ministers and heads of delegation, was convened on Thursday the 12th of November.

Following hours of “closed door” negotiations and a final plenary session that concluded early in the morning of the 14th November, delegates adopted the two-year “Buenos Aires Plan of Action.” The Plan of Action establishes deadlines for finalizing the outstanding details of the Kyoto Protocol so that the agreement will be fully operational when it enters into force, some time after the year 2000.

The Buenos Aires Plan of Action contains the Parties’ resolution to demonstrate substantial progress on a number of important issues, the main of which are:

  • financial mechanisms — which will assist the developing countries to fulfil their commitments and respond to the challenges related to climate change;
  • further work on compliance issues and on policies and measures — an issue introduced by the European Union at a late stage in the Conference;
  • development and transfer of climate-friendly technologies to developing countries;
  • the special needs and concerns of countries affected by climate change and by the economic implications of response measures (that is, the implementation of UNFCCC Articles 4.8 and 4.9, as well as Protocol Articles 2.3 and 3.14);
  • rules governing the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms — formerly known as “flexible mechanisms” which refer to joint implementation, emissions trading and the clean development mechanism — with priority given to the clean development mechanism;
  • extension of the activities implemented jointly pilot phase; and,
  • an undertaking to discuss supplementarity, ceilings, long-term convergence and equity.

The Buenos Aires Plan of Action will accelerate work on the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and will prepare the way for industrialized countries to take future action under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

In the Kyoto Protocol, developed countries — Annex 1 Parties to the UNFCCC — agreed to commitments with a view to reducing their overall emissions of six greenhouse gases by at least five per cent below 1990 levels between the years 2008 and 2012.

As expected, during the meeting, the Kyoto Protocol’s mechanisms were the subject of intense debate. Under the Protocol, an international “emissions trading” regime will be established allowing industrialized countries to buy and sell emissions credits among themselves. A “clean development mechanism” and “joint implementation” programme will provide credits for financing emissions-avoiding projects in developing countries and in countries with economies in transition.

To ensure that the above mechanisms are effective and credible, the work plan may address such issues as the nature and scope of the mechanisms, criteria for project eligibility, compatibility with sustainable development, auditing and verification criteria, institutional roles, principles and guidelines, and so forth.

On technology transfer, the Parties broke a four-year deadlock in the debate. The Conference decision outlines a process on how to overcome the barriers to the transfer of environmentally-sound technology. It was agreed that a panel would draw up a list of outstanding issues and give recommendations for resolving these so that “meaningful and effective action” on technology transfer could be achieved.

On compliance, the Parties reached a common understanding that a strong, comprehensive regime is needed to ensure an effective implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Parties decided that the Global Environment Facility (GEF) shall be the operating entity of the financial mechanism provided for in Article 11 of the Convention. The Parties further agreed to review the financial mechanism every four years on the basis of agreed criteria and guidelines.

Additional guidance was provided to the GEF to provide funding to developing country Parties for a number of activities, including:

  • so-called Stage II adaptation activities for countries and regions vulnerable to the impacts of climate change so that they can plan concrete measures for adaptation;
  • capacity building for participation in observational networks to reduce uncertainties in climate science;
  • maintenance and enhancement of relevant national capacity to prepare initial and second national communications taking account of experiences, including gaps and problems identified in previous national communications, and guidelines established by the COP; and,
  • assistance in developing, strengthening and/or improving national activities for public awareness and education on climate change and response measures.

Delegates were in general agreement that current commitments to emissions reductions were not adequate to meet the climate treaty’s goals but differed on the way forward. Many developing nations argued that the industrialized nations must honour their existing obligations and accept new levels of commitment. A number of developed countries proposed that a broader framework was necessary, thereby permitting a wider range of commitments. This proposal was seen as an attempt to commit developing nations to emissions reductions and was strenuously opposed by, amongst others, China.

During the meeting, the issue of “voluntary commitments” for developing countries was not on the agenda. However, informal discussions on this matter formed part of the meeting’s backdrop. In his address to the participants, President Menem of Argentina expressed his country’s intention to voluntarily adopt an emissions-limitation target for the period 2008 to 2012. Argentina’s position broke from the ranks of the G-77 and China grouping, which opposes “voluntary commitments” and continues to view the inadequacy of commitments in terms of the poor performance of Annex 1 countries. Less than 24 hours after President Menem’s announcement, the United States became the 60th country to sign the Kyoto Protocol. These two events, as perceived by many observers, “displayed all the choreography of a well-executed tango with their timely cues and dramatic impacts.”

[Editorial note: As of March 16th 1999, 84 countries, including the European Union, have signed the Kyoto Protocol. After signing the agreement a government must ratify it, often with the approval of its parliament or legislature. Thus far, only seven countries — all small island or low-lying states — have taken this final step. The Kyoto Protocol will enter into force 90 days after it has been ratified by at least 55 Parties to the Convention, including developed countries representing at least 55 per cent of the total 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from this group.]

At COP4, Kazakhstan expressed its intention to join the group of industrialized countries and accept a legally-binding target. This grouping constitutes Annex B of the Kyoto Protocol. Only Parties in Annex B “may participate in emissions trading for the purpose of fulfilling their commitments under Article 3 (of the Kyoto Protocol).”

According to Earth Negotiations Bulletin: “It is difficult to categorize COP4 as a clear success or failure. Parties came away with a positive outcome that indicates a clear desire to move forward with a plan of work... In the final analysis, the significance of COP4 may not lie in the specifics of the Buenos Aires Plan of Action but in the fact that despite their vastly differing positions, delegates remained committed to restoring the momentum of the process by embracing the discipline of self-imposed deadlines.”

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin analysts noted that the COP4 outcome included a number of wins for the G-77/China grouping regarding technology and financial issues. Both the European Union and the “Umbrella Group” (Australia, Canada, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States) supported this development for their own reasons. The European Union considered that too little attention had been paid to the group’s demands in Kyoto and attempted to give these demands due consideration in Buenos Aires. The “Umbrella Group” wanted to see rapid progress in sorting out guidelines for the Kyoto Protocol’s flexible mechanisms.

The fifth session of the Conference of the Parties will be held from October 25th to November 5th in Bonn, Germany. The Conference of the Parties’ subsidiary bodies will meet in May/June 1999, also in Bonn, to prepare for the fifth session.

Further information

Pak Sum Low, GEF Unit, United Nations Environment Programme, PO Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya. Fax: 254-2-520825. Email:

On the Web

This account draws on reports from Earth Negotiations Bulletin and the UNFCCC Secretariat.

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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