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United Nations: Thinning out negotiating issues on climate change

Government delegates are to meet in France in the second week of September to finalise preparations for the upcoming ministerial meeting of the Climate Change Convention in November.

by Chakravarthi Raghavan


Geneva, 5 Sep 2000 -- Government delegates from some 150 countries are meeting in Lyon, France next week (from 11-15 September) to finalize preparations for the ministerial meeting of the Climate Change Convention to be held at The Hague in Netherlands this November.

While a technical meeting not expected to take or reach agreements, the Lyon meeting provides “a political opportunity to disentangle and thin out the negotiating issues on the table,” Mr. Michael Zammit Cutajar, Executive Secretary of the Convention, said at a media briefing on 5 September.

There are a number of inter-related issues arising out of the Kyoto protocol on climate change, yet to be brought into force by enough ratifications, and the Lyon meeting may not conclude any agreements.

The Kyoto protocol issues involve understandings and agreements among the Annex I countries to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) - the OECD countries and the transition economy countries—and their commitments under the UNFCCC and the Kyoto protocol to cut back emissions to achieve their 1990 standards, as also North-South issues and incentives for the developing countries (who have no commitments to cut back as of now) to achieve a climate- friendly growth path, Zammit Cutajar said.

The Lyon meeting could build a momentum towards reaching a consensus at the Hague, and this could be generated by initial agreements on the North-South axis of the negotiations—by recognizing the vulnerability of developing countries, enhance their response capacity and provide incentives to shift their economic growth into a climate-friendly path.

The Kyoto protocol has been ratified so far by 22 countries.

For the protocol to be effective, it must attract the ratifications of the important industrialized countries, including among them the United States, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

For the protocol to enter into force, it needs ratifications of 55 countries and must include collectively the Annex I countries whose carbon emissions in 1990 accounted for 55% of that group. The United States alone accounts for 34%, and the EU for 26%.

The Lyon meeting of officials is technically the meetings of the Subsidiary bodies for Scientific and Technical Advice and for Implementation under the UNFCCC , and is not expected to reach agreements and conclusions on the climate change issues.

But the Lyon meeting has been given a high political profile by the Government of France, whose Prime Minister Lionel Jospin will address the conference on the opening day, as a response to the signals given by the storms that have been ravaging Europe with increasing frequency and which could be partly attributed to climate change.

The recent melting of the polar cap (of the North pole), Zammit Cutajar said, will no doubt raise some attention, though there has been so far no scientific evidence that it is due to global warming and climate change. But there are other indications of global warming, and many adverse effects were already visible, including increase in water-borne diseases, temperature rises, rise in sea-levels affecting not merely the small islands but low-lying coastal areas in many countries, and affecting food production.

It is a big global problem, and one involving equity, in that the rich can always “buy their way” out of the problem, while the poor can’t afford and would suffer. And by the time of the next meeting of the Conference of Parties (at Marrakesh), the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will have a third scientific assessment report that, like earlier reports, will provide a push for climate change accords, he added.

An important issue is not only the actions that the industrialized countries are committed to take to cut back on their carbon emissions, but how to help developing countries to strengthen their capacity to resist climate change and help them to move towards a climate-friendly development path.

Developing countries have to grow, and this means they will consume more energy and emit more carbon dioxide, and the issue really is not to ask them to stop growing, but how to help them adopt less carbon-emitting growth paths. This will be the important North-South issue for the 21st century.

The Kyoto protocol has set some targets. For example, the US, EU and Japan have to reduce their carbon emissions to achieve the 1990 emission levels and this will require them to cut back 8% in Europe, 7% in the United States and 6% in Japan.

The actions they have to take involve economic costs and political costs too. But the industrialized countries have contributed primarily to the climate problem by their growth patterns over the last 200 years, and the protocol and the UNFCCC envisage actions by them. At this point, the developing countries have no commitments.

Within the developed world, everyone was agreed that the actions they have to take involve market-based instruments, but what instruments and how, was a different matter. The ‘emissions trade’ is one such instrument, and in terms of the UNFCCC and Kyoto protocol options and obligations, the emissions trade, involving ‘buying’ emission rights from those who are not emitting, is among the industrial countries.

It was possible a secondary market, involving developing countries, could arise in this trade, but at the moment that was not the principal focus.

The tensions between the EU and other OECD countries was not over recourse to market instruments, but as to what part of the target for emissions reduction is to be achieved through the emissions trade and what part by other measures.

The EU wants a 50-50 limitation, while the US does not want any particular one. While the EU is seeking a more rigorous approach in environmental terms, the US is seeking a more efficient approach in economic terms.

As for the idea of various sinks, like carbon sequestration in forests and green biomass, in soil etc, there were high degrees of uncertainty about the actual extent of such sinks, and these need to be scientifically sifted. But sinks like carbon sequestration through forests etc are temporary measures, that can be taken now, but are not long-term solutions.

Mr. Zammit Cutajar remained slightly sceptical over claims that agricultural cultivation and production, and sequestration of carbon in soil (through low-till agricultural methods), can contribute to sinks, and said these need to be scientifically assessed.

As for reduction targets that the Annex I countries will achieve, the UK seemed likely to achieve by 2000 the levels of 1990, largely as a result of privatization of the energy sector.

Germany will seem able to achieve its targets due to the economic restructuring of its eastern part (the former East Germany). In Russia, Ukraine, and in several of the east European countries where production has been cut back drastically, they may be well below their ceilings.

The United States, more so because of its booming economy, is well above its targets.

Zammit-Cutajar did not see much conflict between the climate change rights and obligations (under the UNFCCC) and the Bretton Woods Institutions and for that matter, private banks.

The contribution of the World Bank institutions, and of private banks relate to the financing and investments they provide for developing countries, and whether the projects are more energy efficient and less carbon emitting or otherwise.

As for the World Trade Organization, there were some differing interpretations of the obligations under the WTO in terms of TRIPS and other rules relating to technology, and those of the UNFCCC which envisage technology transfer and availability of technology for developing countries.

“The issue as to which should prevail is not yet settled,” he added.

While the Kyoto protocol has set targets, and refers to a compliance regime, there was yet no agreement on the nature of the compliance regime. This was one of the negotiating issues.

The official did not expect that any of the Kyoto protocol issues could be put aside (at Lyon) to make progress, nor did he expect a consensus to be achieved there.

The best one could hope would be that the currently unwieldy negotiating document could be thinned and put into a manageable negotiating shape for ministers to focus their attention at the Hague meeting in November.-SUNS4734

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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