Recent talks in the Hague on mechanisms to combat climate change broke down after disputes between the USA and Europe. Can any real progress be made, or is it all just hot air? Sian Green reports.

Ministers and diplomats expressed their “disappointment” in November as two weeks of intensive negotiations in The Hague on combating climate change ended without agreement. Talks have been scheduled to continue in Bonn next year where it is hoped that consensus on some fundamental issues for implementing the Kyoto Protocol will be achieved.

The climate conference— the sixth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-6)— made progress in some areas but failed on most of the fundamental issues that it set out to achieve.

The objective of COP-6 was to reach agreement on a number of broad and complex issues that will decide how the emission reduction targets set out at Kyoto in 1997 will be reached by the Parties.

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Most publicised were the negotiations between the USA and the European Union over so-called flexibility mechanisms and carbon sinks and how these can be used to help countries meet their commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. In spite of a last ditch effort by the UK’s deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to broker a deal between the two opposing factions, and some last-minute concessions by the US, the talks ended without progress.

As some Parties expressed frustration at the refusal of the European Union delegation to make concessions, others remained positive about the future direction of the talks. Jan Pronk, conference chairman and Environment Minister of the Netherlands, said: “It is extremely disappointing that political leaders were unable to work it out here and finalize guidelines for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“But I believe that the political will to succeed is still alive, and I am confident that we can regroup in the very near future and complete a deal that leads to effective actions to control emissions and protect the most vulnerable countries from the impacts of global warming.”

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted at the third Conference of the Parties, and contains emission targets for developed countries to be achieved in the period 2008-2012. Overall, these countries must reduce their collective emissions of six key greenhouse gases by at least five per cent.

Kyoto established three flexibility mechanisms, designed to help developed countries meet their targets cost-effectively: the clean development mechanism (CDM); joint implementation (JI); and emissions trading. Their usefulness is based on the fact that as it can be cheaper to reduce emissions in countries that, for example, have low energy efficiency levels, they can help ensure that the Kyoto targets are reached as inexpensively as possible.

A more sensitive issue is that of sinks, or land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF). This outlines a mechanism whereby countries can receive credit against their emission reduction targets for carrying out activities such as reforestation. For some countries, growing new forests could be cheaper than reducing industrial emissions.

The EU is particularly opposed to the idea of investing in reforestation, and is also opposed to some flexibility mechanisms. Together, these could allow some countries to fulfil their targets as cheaply as possible while permitting them to increase emissions. Japan, the USA, Canada and New Zealand believe that countries should get credit for growing new forests.

Towards the end of the second, ministerial week of the conference, the US began to make concessions on the issue of sinks. Together with Japan and Canada, it put forward a proposal in which it would relinquish some of the credits it believes it should get from reforestation, but this was rejected by the EU.

The EU highlighted the fact that accounting for forests as sinks was too uncertain. Dominique Voynet, the French environment minister, was particularly critical, claiming that the US was seeking loopholes in the Kyoto Protocol rather than trying to implement it.

But the US believes that sink activities are an important tool for fighting global warming, and is unlikely to put its signature to anything that does not include emissions trading and other flexibility mechanisms. If it makes further concessions, it is unlikely to get the deal ratified by the Senate.

While the US and its partners in this debate may appear to be squirming out of their commitments in the interest of protecting their economy, perhaps its opponents are forgetting that this is more than just about politics, and, indeed, the environment. To make these mechanisms work, the support of investors and businesses around the world is required. Excessive costs and obstacles will mean that Kyoto targets will not be reached.

Many companies see Kyoto as an opportunity for investment and for bringing new, advanced technology to market, but if the rules are not simple and straightforward, they will be put off.

But perhaps the participants at the talks in The Hague should not be so disappointed with the outcome. Bringing together ministers from over 100 countries and getting them to agree how best to overcome the poorly-understood mechanisms of climate change is never going to be easy, and some progress was made towards outlining a package of financial support and technology transfer to developing countries.

There is little doubt that the Climate Change Convention, after eight years of progress, has entered its toughest phase— Parties must now prove they are ready to go beyond talking and put Kyoto into action.