Kyoto Greenhouse Gas Goals Face Tough Test in Hague

Talks begin to put teeth into Kyoto Protocol as island nations face threat of rising ocean levels.

Published: 09-Nov-2000

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Three years after the Kyoto agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions, negotiators will begin talks next week on how to give it some teeth.

Some 180 nations will take part in the U.N. climate change conference, which starts on Monday and runs to November 24. But government representatives will be hugely outnumbered by environmentalists, oil lobbyists, automobile makers and other interest groups out in force to try to shape the debate.

The Kyoto Protocol calling for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions was agreed in 1997. But only about 30 states have ratified the protocol in their own governments, and no major industrialized nation has legally bound itself to the targets.

Many of those countries are awaiting a clearer set of rules before tying themselves to binding targets, and proponents say the time is ripe for such a pact.

"Now we must make a decision," Dutch Environmental Minister Jan Pronk, the conference chairman, told Reuters. "If we fail then the agreement on the (Kyoto) targets will seem hollow."

Overshadowing the conference is a rash of severe storms and floods that many scientists and governments believe are the direct impact of climate change.

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE

The worst flooding in 50 years has caused more than 1 billion euros ($854 million) in damages in Britain this month and prompted Prime Minister Tony Blair to call for renewed international action to limit climate change.

But with average global temperatures forecast to rise at least 1.3 to 4.0 degrees Celsius by 2100, extreme weather is likely to continue to pile up damage around the globe.

"These disasters are at least partly caused by the greenhouse effect," said Pier Vellinga, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies, a research group in Amsterdam and consultant to the European Union.

"In Italy, there was a clear example of a flood caused by climate change," he added, referring to the disaster on the Po River last month that killed 25 people and caused more than 1.5 billion euros in damage.

As laid out in Kyoto, the protocol calling for an average of 5.2-percent emission cut from 1990 levels by 2008-2014, must be ratified by 55 states representing at least 55 percent of greenhouse gas emission to have the effect of law.

That agreement was a follow-up to the Rio environmental summit in 1992, which created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the official organizer of the Hague Conference of Parties.

Subsequent meetings held in Buenos Aires, Bonn and Lyon helped shape mechanisms for cutting emissions, but proponents say the Hague meeting is vital to ratifying concrete agreements.

DETAILS, DETAILS

While there is general agreement on the methods -- emissions trading, transfer of clean technology and reforestation -- working out details has proved a formidable task.

"The most important question is will we be able to decide on instruments in such a way that the environmental integrity is maintained," Pronk said.

Much of the debate hangs on the role of the industrialized world, and how much money it would be willing to spend to help cash-strapped nations replace outmoded technology.

The United States has been the main supporter of emissions credits, which it would receive by transferring technology, as well as emissions trading, in which countries would sell spare capacity to those not meeting cutback targets.

The United States is emphasizing trading because it is the main producer of greenhouse gases and unlikely to make changes that critics have said would cost billions of dollars.

Industry has strong support in the U.S. Senate, where some senior members have vowed to kill any plan that they see endangering economic growth.

PRAGMATISM

Pragmatists in many countries regard such market-based solutions as the most workable system, but few outside the United States believe any nation should be allowed to meet all its reduction targets by buying them from other countries.

The European Union has proposed that states be able to meet half of their emission cutbacks through such transfers, but that the rest must come from domestic output cuts.

Several other hurdles remain, including the contention from OPEC states that they should receive compensation for reductions in the use of oil, which has been contested by other states.

Small island nations and low-lying coastal countries have been the biggest supporters of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, since they face the greatest threat from rising water levels.

"It could be that some of these countries won't exist in 100 years," Pronk said.

One issue that appeared to be receding was concern about the validity of the science behind the causes of global warming.

A draft report compiled the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of several hundred international scientists, and leaked last month said that greenhouse gases were making the world warmer than previously expected, and that the changes were linked to the human burning of fossil fuels.

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