Climate talks: some progress, but without US

Ten months after the Kyoto Protocol took effect, bleary-eyed delegates to UN climate talks here left the sprawling Palais des Congres early Saturday with firm protocol rules and a blueprint - if blurry - for negotiating future commitments.

What they didn't get was deeper participation from Washington. The Bush administration withdrew from Kyoto negotiations in 2001 and adopted its own program to reduce greenhouse gas "intensity" 18 percent by 2012 through voluntary adoption of new, energy- efficient technologies.

Nearly everyone agrees that no global regime to curb emissions will be successful without US involvement. Yet some hold that merely getting delegates to agree to more talks constitutes progress - though the conference closed with fewer specifics about the future than many had hoped for.

Major players such as Japan, Russia, and Europe signaled a readiness "to move forward without the United States," notes Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.

Several factors appear to have influenced that decision. Developing countries, he says, now see the protocol's financial tools as benefiting them in several ways. In the US, state and local governments are enacting their own reduction agreements, albeit with fits and starts. And in June, the Senate adopted a nonbinding resolution 54-43 that backs mandatory reduction targets, to be achieved with market methods.

Atmospheric scientists hold that carbon-dioxide emissions have triggered a long-term warming trend that will accelerate if heat-trapping gases from burning coal, oil, and natural gas aren't curbed.

The talks here followed two tracks. On Track 1, delegates put the finishing touches on implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which 157 countries have ratified. Under Kyoto, industrial countries must reduce their carbon-dioxide emissions by an average of just over 5 percent between 2008 and 2012.

Participating countries strengthened market mechanisms for achieving targets. They anted up money for a fund to help developing countries that may confront rising sea levels or changes in rainfall patterns. And they laid the foundation for talks on a new set of targets to take effect in 2013 and on new ways to achieve those targets.

On Track 2, the US remained hitched to a broader, less-rigorous climate agreement - which gave rise to the protocol - by a slender thread. It was thin enough to please the White House, which avoided any talks it perceived as leading to mandatory targets and timetables. Yet the thread let the rest of the world claim that the US, the world's largest single source of industrial carbon-dioxide emissions, remains engaged in talks about future action.

This was seen as critical to drawing developing countries into talks about how they can increase their efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Under the terms of both agreements, developing countries have no initial obligations, although some countries, such as China, are adopting aggressive pollution standards that many here say will help them move into more-formal agreements later.

With their new marching orders, negotiators now will have to turn the blurred blueprint into a sharply outlined program in time for a seamless hand-off between emissions targets already set for 2008 to 2012 and those that would take effect in 2013.

The meeting's results are "a watershed," says European Union Environment Minister Stavros Dimas. But, he added, "there is still a harsh road in front of us."

In January, the Bush administration is planning a meeting with representatives from several Asian nations to discuss implementing the president's Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. Embracing the US, China, Japan, India, Korea, and Australia, the administration says the effort aims to foster the spread of energy-efficient technologies to Asian nations whose growth is expected to significantly contribute to climate change.

And last week, the White House announced an agreement with an alliance of US utilities to begin work on a nearly $1 billion plant designed to burn coal to generate electricity and produce hydrogen with zero emissions.

Some here fear the Asia-Pacific partnership is a bid to draw key players from UN agreements, but others are less troubled. They note that the US is a fount of energy research and development and see the partnership as an adjunct to the UN process.

Over the past two weeks, elements likely to appear in new emissions-control schemes have started to emerge.

For industrial countries, which would continue with mandatory targets under a second round of emissions cuts, airliner emissions could well come under closer scrutiny. While the protocol envisions curbs on transportation emissions, aircraft emissions have been hard to crack. In Europe, airliners account for roughly 3 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, but also represent the fastest-growing source, notes Artur Runge-Metzger, lead negotiator for the European Commission's delegation. If current growth rates continue into the 2008 to 2012 period, aircraft emissions in Europe will have grown by 150 percent over 1990 levels.

The EC announced that it would draft legislation by the end of next year to curb emissions from all aircraft leaving EU airports. The EC aims to have draft legislation ready for consideration next year in hopes of including these curbs in its efforts to meet Europe's 2008-2012 emissions targets.

"The EU is setting an example, doing some of the preliminary work to show how this area could be effectively integrated into emissions trading," says Sarah Hendry, chief of Britain's delegation. Emissions trading, a US idea, has become a cornerstone for meeting emissions targets.

For developing countries, initial future efforts are likely to be far more flexible than those taken by industrial countries. For example, experts will look at carbon credits for trading in carbon-exchange markets to countries that stem deforestation. Countries could also agree to targets for specific sectors, such as power generation. Missing them would not incur a penalty. But exceeding them would yield credits to trade on the growing carbon market.

The Kyoto Protocol is "alive and kicking," says Mr. Dimas.

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