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World: Climate Change Conference or Business Meeting?

by Marcela ValenteInter Press Service
November 1st, 2000

BUENOS AIRES -- Delegates from 175 countries are to meet at The Hague in mid-November to hammer out details for satisfying commitments made for curbing emissions of climate- changing greenhouse gases, but environmental activists warn that the discussions leading up to the conference look more like business deals.

Juan Carlos Villalonga, in charge of energy affairs for the Argentine office of Greenpeace, the international environmental watchdog, told IPS that on the eve of the Sixth Conference of Parties (COP6) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ''the debate does not involve the commitments, but rather how to evade them without having to pay.''

''We environmentalists have a position in the debate that cannot be considered trivial, because the European Union (EU) and island nations agree with our proposals. But there is a very strong mercantilist conception among those who want to participate in the convention to do business or make money,'' Villalonga said.

''The Convention (on climate change) is no longer a forum about a very serious global environmental issue - the warming of the atmosphere - but has become an arena in which one can sell commodities and do business with sales of forests, land and technologies,'' he pointed out.

Most scientists around the world agree that several types of gases, especially carbon dioxide, accumulate in the earth's atmosphere and cause the so-called greenhouse effect. In other words, they trap solar radiation, causing average global temperatures to rise.

This warming causes polar ice to melt and sea levels to rise, which in turn produces flooding. The process also provokes extreme weather phenomena, such as droughts and hurricanes, and contributes to the spread of warm-climate diseases like malaria, and to the extinction of plant and animal species.

The concentration of emissions produced by human activities has meant that the average temperature increase over the last decade was the highest of the millennium, say experts in climate change research.

The objective of COP6 is to push for compliance with commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions agreed in a series of meetings beginning in 1995.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was approved in 1992, at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and entered into force in 1994. One year later, a series of annual meetings began with the participation of the Convention's signatories.

In the third meeting of the parties, held in 1997 in the Japanese city of Kyoto, delegates established quantitative emissions reduction goals for the industrialised North, but this agreement, known as the Kyoto Protocol, has yet to be ratified.

Carbon dioxide is responsible for 72 percent of the global warming process and is produced by a wide range of economic activities and in all countries, though volumes of emissions vary depending on each country's level of development.

Methane and nitrous oxide also contribute to global warming, as do other gases originating from activities in industry, trade, farming and livestock.

''Unlike the emissions that affect the ozone layer, which are limited to a few controllable economic activities, carbon dioxide, which is released in the combustion of fossil fuels - coal, petroleum, gasoline -, affects an enormous range of interests in all countries,'' said Villalonga.

Industries such as steel, air-conditioning and heating, aluminium casting, cement, petroleum and gasoline production, and transportation are among the leading producers of carbon dioxide.

In 1999, 175 countries ratified the UNFCCC. The maximum body of the Convention is the Conference of Parties, which meets once each year to evaluate the accords and compliance with meeting emissions reduction targets.

The Kyoto Protocol, meanwhile, requires the nations of the industrialised North to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by the period 2008 to 2012 to at least five percent below the levels recorded in 1990 in each country.

But the only ones that have ratified the Protocol so far are developing countries, and even they have done so in insufficient numbers to give the document the force of international law.

For Villalonga, if there were greater political will to curb emissions, the Protocol could be a simple list in which industrialised countries would set abatement percentages and timeframes.

But the document is complex, given that, among other measures, it creates ''flexible mechanisms'' for meeting the emissions reduction targets.

''The incorporation of those mechanisms is the target of a great deal of criticism because many believe they are loopholes for non-compliance,'' Ral Estrada Oyuela told IPS. In Kyoto, he served as the president of the plenary of delegates who approved the protocol and was a key participant in the prior negotiations.

''The ideal'' would have been to prevent the inclusion of the flexible mechanisms, but the need to involve the top missions producers, like the United States, meant that realism took precedence over idealism, commented Estrada Oyuela, chief of the Argentine delegation that will travel to The Hague for COP6.

In 1990, the United States was responsible for 37 percent of the emissions coming from industrialised countries. Today its portion has reached 40 percent.

''If you take the whole world into account, the United States produces 25 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions,'' Estrada Oyuela pointed out.

However, the real reduction of emissions by Germany and Great Britain, and the less-than-expected growth of emissions in Eastern Europe, meant an average decline of six percent from 1990 to 1998.

The EU believes it necessary to require the leading emissions producers to meet their abatement quotas even though the decline in emissions in other countries permits a reasonable balance. But the United States does not share that position.

One of the Protocol's flexible mechanisms allows for the joint implementation of reduction measures, which permits and industrialised country to exceed its emissions quota in exchange for the curbing of emissions in another industrialised nation.

Additionally, the treaty's Clean Development Mechanism allows industrialised nations to compensate for their emissions by investing in the developing South's forestation projects or new technologies, whether for developing renewable energy sources or improving the efficiency of traditional sources.

Emissions trading, meanwhile, means the North can achieve its reduction targets by purchasing credits for carbon dioxide reductions from other countries. This system today primarily benefits the nations of the former socialist bloc.

Because the economic growth of the formerly socialist countries of Eastern Europe over the last decade was slower than predicted, their industrial emissions were less than was expected when the Kyoto targets were set.

As a result, those countries have a surplus of what is known as ''hot air'' that they can trade with the leading polluters, which would then not have to pursue emissions reduction measures at home.

Environmentalists say these formulas lend themselves to business deals. In fact, Estrada Oyuela admitted that Argentina's official position is to try to attract investment from the North for forestry projects and technology, a stance that is shared by many other nations in the region.

Greenpeace believes the initiative covering ''carbon sinks'' (forests and other plantings that serve to absorb carbon) is not the right answer. The ideal would be to invest in the development of technologies for renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, argues the environmental organisation.

But in Argentina, ''the agenda for the conference is being drafted by the forestry lobbyists,'' whose pressure tactics coincide with the official policy to bring in investments and sign business agreements, according to Greenpeace.

Thus, environmental groups do not think COP6 at The Hague will result in any major advances toward curbing climate change, especially given that the meeting comes on the heels of presidential elections in the United States, one of the leading actors in this film that, for now, has no end.

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