Albion Monitor /News

Meaningful Results Doubtful

Monitor Wire Services

KYOTO -- The world's environment ministers Thursday produced an accord to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent by the year 2012, but doubts hung heavily over the real impact of the so-called Kyoto protocol.

This early, the accord is being called a half-baked pact with many loopholes. Many of the divisive issues, among them the controversial subject of emissions trading, remain unresolved and have been left for discussions to be held next year.

Still, the protocol marks the first time that the 34 industrialized countries are being legally bound to targets for cutting the production of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.

The same countries pledged at the 1992 Earth Summit to bring emissions of greenhouse gases back to 1990 levels by 2000 -- but virtually all of them have failed to do so, though they were not binding targets. In fact, their emissions have risen by an average of eight to nine percent since 1990.

Final agreement full of loopholes
After working overnight and extending the Dec 1-10 talks by a day, weary negotiators from some 160 countries formally ratified the Kyoto protocol early Thursday afternoon.

In the end, the United States, the largest producer of carbon dioxide responsible for 25 percent of total emissions, said it would cut emissions by seven percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

The European Union, which had previously sought a 15 percent uniform reduction among developed nations, said it would reduce emissions by eight percent by 2012. Japan pledged to cut greenhouse emissions, which come mostly from the burning of fossil fuel, by six percent by the year 2012.

As a result of lobbying by the U.S., the protocol covers all six greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulphur hexafluoride.

The talks at first targeted the first three gases, but U.S. chief negotiator Stuart Eizenstat said it was environmentally sound to include the others "even though it makes our target seem less ambitious."

Though not quite satisfied with all aspects of the agreement, developing countries said it was just about the only choice they had, given the difficult talks. In a Thursday press conference, U.S. chief negotiator Stuart Eizenstat said "hard choices were made" at the talks.

But environmentalists say the chances that the targets alone would led to meaningful cuts in greenhouse gases -- and changes in wasteful lifestyles in the developed world -- were at best uncertain.

As word got around about the 5 percent average cuts, Greenpeace's Bill Hare said the proposal was "so full of loopholes it looks like a Swiss cheese."

Activists are looking at whether the developed countries will in fact be forced to cut emissions in their own nations, and what measures would ensure that non-compliance is penalized.

In other words, the provisions that are not in the agreement are as important as those that made it to the protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Developed nations and industries pushed hard for trading pollution credits
The U.S. and other developed nations had tried to insist countries or industries be allowed to "buy" pollution credits in the international market instead of making actual reductions. American officials said this would reduce the costs of emissions controls.

But stiff resistance and differing interpretations of so-called 'emissions trading' blocked a consensus on the subject, which was then put off for discussion at the 1998 meeting of parties to the UNFCCC.

This is a key factor in assessing whether the targeted reductions industrialized nations are supposed to make are real cuts achieved by cleaning up industry within their countries -- or met by buying credits overseas.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth said the U.S. could likely buy emissions from Central and Eastern Europe, while continuing to spew greenhouse gases at home. In Russia and the Ukraine, greenhouse emissions are already 32 percent lower than 1990 levels, due to shrinking industries and the shutdown of polluting factories.

The group added that while the final targets represented a "significant shift" from the European and American negotiating positions, they were far below the 15 percent cut originally sought by the European Union.

At best a slight diplomatic shift
Before Wednesday, as the U.S. held tough to its original position of zero percent reduction and just stabilization of emissions at 1990 levels by 2018-2012, it seemed like the talks were headed for collapse.

In the end, delegates said the protocol omitted trying to get developing countries to work toward "voluntary commitments" to cut back on their own greenhouse gas emissions, an issue that had sharply divided the U.S. and developing nations.

Asian officials said that while developing countries know their responsibility, previous rounds of talks had made clear they were not to be bound by any targets. India's delegate called the U.S. attempt to get voluntary commitments an "attempt to create a new category of commitments for developing countries."

"Consensus does not yet fully exist in the developing world," Eizenstat said on Thursday. He expressed the hope that in future talks on climate change, developed countries would become "partners and not antagonists in dealing with this issue."

Earlier, the U.S. Senate had passed a resolution saying a global warming treaty that sets targets for the developed world but does not exact corresponding targets from "key developing countries" would be unacceptable.

But while the issue of developing country participation was dropped, much of what the U.S. had in mind may well be achieved through a clean development fund which would help developing nations carry out projects to curb global warming. The fund's creation had been agreed on by the conference on Wednesday.

Christopher Bals of the Germanwatch NGO said the protocol had a lot of loopholes that made the reduction targets more of a stabilization target. "An extremely unsatisfying result [for the climate]," he said.

Nevertheless, the targets in the agreement are a clear signal that "the time of the fossil fuel industry is drawing to an end and that of alternative energies is on the horizon," he said.

But already political hurdles arise. Not long after officials announced the deal, key Republicans in the U.S. Senate promised that the agreement was "dead on arrival." Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a member of the U.S. delegation, agreed that it would never be ratified by Congress in its current form. Aides to Kerry told the Washington Post that the Senator hoped that Clinton wouldn't send it to Congress until after follow-up conferences in June and November.

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Albion Monitor December 15, 1997 (

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