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World: Climate Talks Hinge on US Elections

by Marcela ValenteInter Press Service
November 3rd, 2000

BUENOS AIRES -- The United States has been the key actor in preparatory negotiations leading up to the climate change conference to be held at The Hague this month, leading many to fear that US presidential elections Nov 7 will mean the enactment of the conference's resolutions will be put on hold.

There are also those who suggest that the 175 countries participating in the Nov 13 to 24 meeting, in which delegates are to hammer out ways to meet the goals set for reducing emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases, will not adopt any decisions before January, when the new US president takes office.

The date of this Sixth Conference of Parties (COP6) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 'was poorly chosen, because it falls so close to the elections in the United States,'' said Ral Estrada Oyuela, head of the Argentine delegation and one of the chief international negotiators on climate change.

'It is highly doubtful that the European Union (EU) will yield from its position on key issues knowing that in a few months there will be a new administration in the United States, and many of us believe that The Hague agenda should be left open until a new date, such as a meeting in June 2001, '' Estrada Oyuela told IPS.

Scientists worldwide are urging nations to reduce emissions of various types of gases, especially carbon dioxide, that accumulate in the earth's atmosphere and cause the so-called greenhouse effect. In other words, these gases trap solar radiation, which leads to global warming.

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 weight of US participation in the talks is underscored by the fact that it is responsible for 40 percent of the industrialised nations' emissions of these gases, and for 25 percent of emissions worldwide, according to the secretariat of the Convention on Climate Change.

The US State Department's Under-Secretary for Global Affairs, Frank E. Loy, admitted as much in September in a speech before the US Senate when he said, ''any agreement that excludes the United States will not control global warming. European businesses may wonder why they are asked to assume significant new climate change obligations if their US competitors are not going to be subject to roughly the same rules.''

But beyond that consideration, Washington assures that polluting gas emissions in the United States have fallen with respect to the rise of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Official data indicate the economy grew four percent in 1999, while carbon dioxide emissions rose just one percent.

The United States has pressed for the flexibilisation of abatement commitments since negotiations began, and won the inclusion of mechanisms that environmental organisations consider highly questionable.

Loy, however, sees the mechanisms as ''a victory'' for his country that will permit it ''to dramatically lower the costs of emissions reduction.''

Juan Carlos Villalonga, in charge of energy affairs for the Argentine office of Greenpeace, the international environmental watchdog, told IPS ''the discussion now is to define whether we want the United States excluded from a good environmental accord, or included in one that is tarnished in spirit due to the concessions made.''

The objective of COP6 is to push for compliance with commitments to curtail greenhouse gas emissions that were agreed in a series of meetings that began in 1995 in Berlin.

The UNFCCC was approved in 1992 at the 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 1997, increasingly aware that gas emissions were on the rise despite international warnings, the third Conference of the Parties, held in Kyoto, Japan, wrote up a new document with additional commitments and quantified targets for reduction of the greenhouse gases emitted in the industrialised North.

Environmentalists believe what is now known as the Kyoto Protocol, which has yet to be ratified by any industrialised nation, conceded too much to the United States.

Estrada Oyuela, who presided over the commission that drafted the text, says ''the Protocol is not ideal, but is what we were able to do to prevent the United States - the world's chief polluter - from leaving'' the negotiating table.

And Washington continues trying to impose its points of view on the negotiations. According to Loy's speech before the Senate, the principal duty of President Bill Clinton's administration on this matter was to ensure that the Kyoto Protocol included the most cost-effective mechanisms for complying with emissions reduction targets.

In other words, the investment of industrialised nations in research and development of clean and renewable technologies would be compensated by reducing costs through mechanisms ultimately included in the Protocol: emissions trading, clean development and joint implementation.

The first, emissions trading, allows the North to exceed the emissions quotas established under the accord by purchasing credits from a developing country that has reduced emissions through cleaner industrial production or a decline in economic activity, as has occurred in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Clean development, meanwhile, allows an industrialised country to surpass its greenhouse gas limits if it aids in carbon-trapping forestry projects, for example, in developing countries. This mechanism continues to spur a great deal of criticism and its implementation is to be discussed at The Hague.

Joint implementation means that a wealthy nation that exceeds its emissions limits must assist in curbing greenhouse gas output in another country of the North so that their average emissions volumes meet targets set by the Protocol.

''Some have expressed concern that our approach could undermine the environmental integrity of the agreement,'' Loy told the Senate. ''We, too, want a strong agreementbut not one that is more expensive and painful than necessary.''

The US official predicted that two groups would clash at The Hague conference. One is the EU, which according to Greenpeace has positions that approach those held by environmental groups, and the other side, an ''umbrella group,'' would be made up of the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway and Russia.

''The European Union and the umbrella group share the same major objective: to create a climate protection regime with great enviromental integrity... In contrast, the EU and the umbrella group's approaches to the question of the Protocol's costs are quite different,'' Loy pointed out.

''Some in Europe think that we have a moral obligation to change our lifestyle as quickly and radically as possible,'' he explained, but we believe ''that the most cost effective and affordable solutions will build the broadest public support for action and stretch our dollars to achieve the maximum enviromental protection.''

The United States and Europe are clearly at odds on certain items of the COP6 agenda, such as ''supplementarity.'' The Kyoto Protocol establishes that the mechanisms included are to be supplemental to the efforts of each country to curb greenhouse gas emissions, though the document does not specify percentage.

For the United States it is ''arbitrary and distorting'' to put a cap on the ability of industrialised nations to use the mechanisms, while the EU says countries that have cut domestic emissions by 50 percent should be the only ones allowed to implement the supplemental measures.

Estrada Oyuela and Villalonga believe Washington is attempting to count emissions trading and other mechanisms towards its abatement target in order to avoid the budgetary requirements of investing in clean technologies.

But Loy stressed at a London meeting that Clinton had already convinced the US Congress to earmark one billion dollars for a development fund for the climate change issue, and this year asked the lawmakers to boost the amount to four billion dollars.

Another divisive issue is the US assertion that there should be no punishment for countries that do not meet their Kyoto goals. The EU, however, says there should be a system of fines for non- compliance.

Also on the negotiating table is Washington's proposal that the countries of the developing South must join the North and commit themselves to emissions abatement targets.

Loy said that, even though the greater responsibility for curbing emissions falls to the industrialised North, it must not be forgotten that developing countries already produce 44 percent of fossil fuels, which are at the top of the list as atmospheric polluters.

The problem is that the United States does not want limits and, instead, is pressuring the South to be an ally in the implementation of the flexible mechanisms, which today have transformed into business opportunities for countries hungry for investment, maintains Greenpeace's Villalonga.

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