Climate Change discord a rehearsal for Kyoto?

by Martin Khor

NEW YORK: Climate change emerged, at the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) which concluded on 27 June, as the most high-profile and controversial of all the sectoral issues being negotiated.

It was also one of the last issues where agreement was reached, on night of 27 June.

The issue was highly charged because UNGASS became an arena for countries to lobby their respective positions and have an edge, ahead of the last lap of preparations for the December 1997 Kyoto meeting of the Conference of Parties of the Climate Change Convention.

The Kyoto session is expected to adopt a protocol for developed countries to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Some developed countries, especially those in the European Union, have already prepared their position, that there be a legally binding protocol in which developed countries agree to reduce their emissions by specified amounts and within target years.

Other countries, particularly the US, have not yet finalised their position. The US administration has to face up to a tough stance by Congress, which at present, seems adamantly opposed to the US agreeing to specified target amounts and dates for emission reduction.

The US administration is also apparently of the view that it may agree to targets only if developing countries (or some of the bigger ones) would also agree to commit themselves to emission limits.

Climate change (and its convention) is emerging as perhaps the most economically and politically contentious and significant of all the global environmental issues because the decisions taken on countries' emission limits or reductions will have substantial implications for limits to and quality of energy use, industrial production, and overall economic growth.

At the UNGASS, the EU was battling for the adoption of clearly specified and legally-binding targets, namely a 15% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4 and N2O combined) to below the 1990 level by the year 2010.

They were joined by the Organisation of Small Island States, which put forward even stricter standards: a 20% reduction of CO2 emissions to below the 1990 level by year 2005.

However, the case for specified targets was already lost, before the UNGASS started, at the Group of Seven Summit in Denver. After a round of intense fights among the leaders, the Communique of the "Denver Summit of the Eight" only committed the G7 countries to emission reductions by year 2010 that are "meaningful, realistic and equitable", but without specifying the reduction rates. The refusal of the US to agree to specified reduction rates, or come forward with its own targets, became the reason for it to be singled out (by NGOs, the media and other delegations) as the country blocking meaningful environmental commitmnents at UNGASS.

Recognition of climate change problem

US President Bill Clinton's speech at the General Assembly on 26 June focused almost exclusively on climate change. He pledged that he US "must do better and we will", and promised to bring to Kyoto "a strong American commitment to realistic and binding limits that will significantly reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases."

But he did not announce any specified reduction rates or target years. There was thus no way that the UNGASS document could come up with the magic numbers.

After further negotiations, the informal group negotiating climate change finally agreed on text, that the international community confirmed its recognition of the problem of climate change as one of the biggest challenges facing the world in the next century.

"The ultimate goal which all countries share is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system," reads para 42 of the UNGASS "Programme for further implementation of Agenda 21."

"This requires efficient and cost-effective policies and measures that will be sufficient to result in a significant reduction in emissions."

"At this meeting, countries reviewed the state of the preparations for the third session of the Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change in Kyoto. All are agreed that it is vital that there should be a satisfactory result."

"The position of many countries for these negotiations are still evolving, and it was agreed that it would not be appropriate to seek to pre-determine the results, although useful interactions on evolving positions took place."

"There is already widespread but not universal agreement that it will be necessary to consider legally binding, meaningful, realistic and equitable targets for Annex I countries that will result in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions within specified time frames, such as 2005, 2010, 2020."

"In addition to establishing targets, there is also widespread agreement that it will be necessary to consider ways and means for achieving them and to take into account the economic, adverse environmental and other effects of such response measures on all countries, particularly developing countries."

An interesting feature of the negotiations was that the Group of 77 did not have a position, as a group, on the issue of specified targets and dates, or on the legally-binding nature of commitments, regarding climate change.

The Small Island States, however, took a clear position, arguing for the strictest targets among all groups of countries. The Samoa delegation, representing the Small Island States, told the negotiating group that "if you don't accept our proposal (for a 20% reduction of CO2 emissions to below the 1990 level by year 2005), we will have to start a death-watch for the planet."

Some of the major oil-producing countries have been against legally-binding emission targets as they fear these would reduce the demand and price for oil.

In the next several months, the climate change issue (and in particular, the negotiations for setting targets for emission reductions or limits) can be expected to dominate the environment and development scene, as countries gear up for the Kyoto Conference of Parties meeting, which will be preceded by two preparatory meetings, both in Bonn, on 28 July-7 August and 20-31 October. (TWE No. 165, 16-31 July 1997)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.