Buenos Aires exposes a great divide

November`s climate talks in Buenos Aires brought to light some fundamental differences in opinion between nations as they tried to work on implementing the emissions cuts promised at Kyoto last year. The UN`s task of climate control is evidently getting tougher – can it really progress further?

Siân Green

Combating global warming was never going to be an easy task, but it just seems to get harder. First the scientists had to prove to the politicians that climate change is a threat, and now the politicians must try to agree on what method will be best, in political, economic and technical terms, to reduce this threat.

That was the task of the ministers and officials from some 180 countries meeting last month in Buenos Aires. Having agreed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases at last year`s meeting in Kyoto, Japan, the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change met once again to agree on how best to meet their obligations.

Essentially, the objective of the meeting was to establish a mechanism for attaining the emission reduction targets agreed under the Kyoto Protocol. At Kyoto, developed countries agreed an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of five per cent on 1990 levels by 2012. Parties at Buenos Aires discussed three mechanisms: emissions trading, joint implementation, and the so-called “clean development mechanism” (CDM).

Predictably, no agreement was reached on the best mechanism for reaching targets. The conference concluded with the adoption of a Buenos Aires Action Plan with a year 2000 deadline for finalising work on the mechanisms, compliance issues and policies.

So far, 60 countries have signed the Kyoto Protocol, and each evidently has differing needs and ideals, politically and economically. Compromise will therefore not be easy, as Buenos Aires proved.

The most contentious issue of the meeting was the position of the USA on the role of developing nations. While Kyoto only applies to developed countries, the USA argues that the developing world, whose emissions of carbon dioxide are steadily rising, should be accountable. This is at odds with the views of the European Union and the G77 group of developing countries.

This issue became the biggest sticking point of the talks and is likely to continue to hold up the pace of progress. Although US President Bill Clinton finally put his signature to the Kyoto Protocol towards the end of the talks, he made it clear that he would not submit the Protocol to the US Senate for ratification until key developing nations pledge commitments to reducing their emissions.

The concern of the US is that countries such as China, India and Brazil will see significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions over the next few years. Although this concern is a legitimate one, the EU and G77 argue that the West is responsible for the majority of emissions to date, and so should lead the way in emission reduction before stimulating cuts elsewhere. The USA, for example, was responsible for 36.1 per cent of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, the US is not alone. Clinton`s stance won support from several developing nations, including Argentina, South Korea, Chile, Mexico and Kazakhstan.

But the EU and the US were also at loggerheads over the issue of “flexibility mechanisms” for meeting Kyoto targets such as emissions trading. The EU believes that there should be some restrictions on the use of these mechanisms, fearing that they may give industrialised countries an excuse to neglect their obligations. The US, however, backs the case for emissions trading, and claims that imposing limits on such mechanisms would increase the costs of curbing greenhouse gases.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the USA must reduce its CO2 emissions by seven per cent of 1990 levels by 2012, while the EU as a whole must implement cuts of eight per cent. To implement its reductions, the EU has opted for a “bubble” approach, where some EU states have agreed to make large cuts so that other states can actually increase emissions. The US believes that this flexibility enjoyed by the EU should entitle other countries similar freedom in emissions trading.

Of the three implementation mechanisms, CDM appeared to be the most popular among the delegates as a flexible, business-oriented solution. CDM would allow industrialised countries to provide investment in clean technology for industrial growth in poorer countries in exchange for “emissions credits” to be used against their own domestic targets.

This would bring foreign investment and access to clean technologies for developing countries, overcoming a criticism from nations such as India, that claim that technology transfer has been too slow in the past. For industrialised countries, it could provide a cheaper and more flexible way to meet targets. In addition, it could bring market opportunities for business, and according to some estimates, capital flows of between $5bn and $17bn.

Some developing countries are concerned about the implications of CDM. A number of African nations have expressed concern that such a mechanism could reduce the levels of official aid flows. In addition, environmental groups fear that CDM could create a loop-hole for developing nations to avoid cutting emissions. However, no precise model for CDM has yet been devised, so issues such as these will be carried over, too.

It seems that the UN is therefore facing its toughest challenge yet in fighting the threat of climate change. There are many complex issues and many divided opinions to overcome.

But perhaps the greatest challenge will be to make the Kyoto Protocol legally binding. Although 60 countries have signed the Protocol, only two have ratified it. It will become legally binding when ratified by 55 countries representing 55 per cent of overall 1990 world industrial emissions.

Without ratification, Kyoto is potentially meaningless, and some countries are using this fact as leverage. As long as this continues, prospects for real progress seem bleak.

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