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Kyoto still alive, insists climate chief negotiator

by Jim Lobe

Washington, 18 Apr 2001 (IPS) - “As far as I am concerned, Kyoto is alive,” declared Jan Pronk, the chairman of UN climate negotiations, here Wednesday shortly after meeting with a senior US State Department official.

But, heading into meetings in New York this weekend, which he described as “crucial”, Pronk voiced concern that Australia, Canada, and Japan may be inclined to follow the administration of US President George W. Bush in withdrawing from an active role in negotiating the details of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

If they did, he said, “it is not clear it would make sense to proceed (with negotiations because Kyoto) then would be a European exercise”.

He added that compromise proposals he has put forward on issues that caused an impasse in the last round of the Kyoto talks in November in the Hague - notably, how countries could use forests and land management as credits against emissions targets - for discussion at the weekend meetings are designed precisely to appeal to those three countries and indirectly, to the United States itself.

Meeting with reporters, Pronk, who is also Environment Minister in the Netherlands, insisted that he has not yet given up on the Bush administration despite statements last month that it was not interested in pursuing the Kyoto process.

“The statement that ‘Kyoto is dead’ is not being uttered anymore,” he said after meeting with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. “I think it was a premature statement,” he added, referring to a statement reportedly made by Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to a visiting European Union (EU) delegation last month.

Pronk, who is pressing the administration of President George W. Bush to keep its mind open, said that US officials he met with here have been silent about the substance and progress of a cabinet-level review on climate change, which was initiated just two weeks ago.

But he said it was imperative that the review engage other countries involved in the negotiations and that it be completed well before the next session, scheduled for the latter half of July in Bonn, precisely so that other nations can prepare a response.

Indeed, Washington’s failure to conclude its review before the New York meeting, he said, “is a pity, because all other countries are waiting”. He said he was willing to schedule a similar meeting in June for the administration to present its conclusions to a similar gathering of some 40 or 50 key countries.

The Kyoto Protocol, which was concluded with the support of the Bill Clinton administration, requires 38 industrialised countries to reduce their emissions of carbon-based greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2% below their 1990 levels by 2010.

Greenhouse gases - including carbon dioxide, the product of the combustion of fossil fuels, like coal and oil - are believed by most scientists to be responsible for the accelerated warming of the Earth’s atmosphere over the last century.

In its latest report issued in January, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that average temperatures on the Earth’s surface could rise by as much as 5.8 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, if present emission trends are not altered, with potentially catastrophic consequences, particularly for poorer countries, which are likely to be hardest hit by climate change.

The Protocol, which provides targets for reducing emissions in industrialised countries, also foresees the eventual inclusion of developing countries in a global emissions regime.

But, because per capita emissions in rich countries are more than 20 times higher than in developing countries and because almost all of the greenhouse gases currently warming the atmosphere originated in industrialised nations, developing countries are not expected to commit themselves to specific targets until the first phase of the Protocol has been successfully completed.

US participation is considered particularly important, because, with 25% of the world’s emissions, it is by far the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gases.

That is why the administration’s abrupt announcement that it was opposed to Kyoto marked a major blow to prospects not only for the Protocol’s implementation, but also for the future of multilateral negotiations on global problems as well, according to Pronk. “It would be really a big setback if countries would step out (of multilateral negotiations) because there are changes in regimes,” he said.

Bush’s decision caused particular anger in the EU, which immediately dispatched a high-level delegation to Washington for an explanation and to other key capitals, including Moscow, Beijing, and Tokyo to bolster support for the Protocol.

In fact, the administration’s position and the status of its review have been somewhat muddied. In late January, the administration asked Pronk to delay the Bonn negotiating round from May to July so that it could complete a review of the issue.

But, in a letter to four anti-Kyoto senators in mid-March, even before a review had begun, Bush said he believed the Protocol “would cause serious harm to the US economy” - a point he re-iterated to reporters two weeks later.

In the same letter, he also claimed that the exemption of developing countries from emission curbs was unfair and that the state of scientific knowledge about the causes of global warming was “incomplete”.

In the wake of the EU’s reaction, however, Washington has pledged to attend the Bonn meeting, if not participate actively in it. In the meantime, US officials insist that they cannot speak about the issue while the review is underway.

In fact, the administration’s March statements resulted from a furious lobbying campaign by coal and some oil interests, as well as right-wing Republicans philosophically opposed to government regulation, particularly at the international level.

Because the cabinet review is tightly held, it remains unclear what the administration will decide ultimately, although some powerful interests, including some energy, chemical, and automobile companies - notably BP Amoco, Royal Dutch/Shell, Ford, Enron, and DuPont - in addition to the EU and environmental groups, are lobbying for a reassessment.

These companies have not only taken steps to curb emissions in their own operations, but are worried that their products may cease to be competitive in Europe or other foreign markets, which adopt tough new standards to comply with Kyoto curbs.

Just last week, a blue-ribbon task force of corporate executives, veteran foreign-policy hands, and energy specialists put together by the ultra-establishment Council on Foreign Relations, called on the administration to conduct a “thorough review” of Kyoto and “a greater US commitment on the global warming issue”.

Last week, the Senate rebuffed Bush on a proposal to cut $4.5 million in funds for climate-change programmes over the coming decade.

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