The Independent (U.K.), 19 December 2004
Governments from around the world yesterday narrowly succeeded in keeping the international bid to combat catastrophic global warming alive, in the face of determined attempts by the re-elected Bush administration to kill it off.
Top negotiators described the effort - at a special UN conference in Buenos Aires - as like hanging on to a cliff face by their "fingernails", as the United States and oil-producing countries threw rock after rock to try to dislodge them.
More than 36 hours after the conference was supposed to have ended - following two all-night negotiating sessions, and while workmen were physically dismantling the facilities around them - delegates finally agreed on a series of compromises that avoided complete breakdown and kept some life in the negotiations.
The US said that "on balance" it was "very pleased with the outcome", but its obdurate obstruction of even anodyne proposals at the two-week conference bodes ill for the future of the talks, which are designed to hammer out the next tough steps to be taken after the Kyoto Protocol runs its course in 2012.
It will also sharply increase the pressure on Tony Blair, who has committed himself to making progress on combating global warming - and involving the US in the effort - one of the key priorities for his leadership of the G8 group of the world's most powerful countries next year. Even before the cliff-hanger conference, Downing Street was increasingly at a loss about how it was going to fulfil the worldwide expectations raised by the Prime Minister in two high-profile speeches this year on what he describes as "long term, the single most important issue facing the global community".
The US performance in Buenos Aires appears to fly in the face of a commitment given by President Bush in 2001, when he announced that the US would withdraw from the protocol that it had previously played a key part in negotiating. In the face of international outrage, he said then that even though it was pulling out, the US would do nothing to obstruct other countries trying to reach agreement. By and large it has kept to this position since, at least in public, believing that the protocol was doomed without its participation.
But this autumn Washington was shocked and angered when Russia agreed to ratify the protocol - completing the number of countries needed, under its complex rules, to bring it into force. Environmentalists say that the re-elected Bush administration has decided to do everything it can to sabotage any further international measures, and is not concerned about the international condemnation it will incur in the process.
This transformed the Buenos Aires conference, which was expected to be a routine and relatively uncontroversial meeting, the last before negotiations on the follow-up to Kyoto begin in earnest next November. Its chairman, Raul Estrada-Oyuela, an Argentinian diplomat who played a central role in the negotiation of the protocol seven years ago, proposed an apparently inoffensive series of informal meetings over next year to prepare the ground for the talks.
But this was vigorously opposed by the US, which insisted there could only be one informal meeting, and that no ideas for the future could be discussed at it. The Americans also objected to mentions of the need to tackle global warming as opposed to adapting to it, and backed an extraordinary demand from Saudi Arabia that oil-producing states should receive billions of dollars in compensation from the rest of the world if they burned less oil.
Eventually a single meeting that could discuss the future was agreed for next May, and other uneasy compromises were reached, preventing total breakdown. "It is a finger-hold, like hanging on by your nails," says Michael Zammit Cutajar, a veteran climate negotiator for Malta who was for 11 years executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The New York Times, Dec. 19, 2004
Two weeks of negotiations at a United Nations conference on climate change ended early Saturday with a weak pledge to start limited, informal talks on ways to slow down global warming, after the United States blocked efforts to begin more substantive discussions.
The main focus was to discuss the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, which goes into force on Feb. 16 and will require industrial nations to make substantial cuts in their emissions of so-called greenhouse gases. But another goal had been to draw the United States, which withdrew from the accord in 2001, back into discussions about ways to mitigate climate change after 2012, when the Kyoto agreement expires.
Governments that are already committed to reducing emissions under the Kyoto plan used diplomatic language to express their disappointment at the American position. Environmental groups, however, were more critical of what they characterized as obstructionism.
"This is a new low for the United States, not just to pull out, but to block other countries from moving ahead on their own path," said Jeff Fiedler, an observer representing the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's almost spiteful to say, 'You can't move ahead without us.' If you're not going to lead, then get out of the way."
Because the United States rejects the Kyoto accord, it cannot take part except as an observer in talks on global warming held under that format. It has, however, signed a broader 1992 convention on climate change that is based on purely voluntary measures, and the European Union and others had hoped to organize seminars within that framework.
But the United States maintains it is too early to take even that step, and initially insisted that "there shall be no written or oral report" from any seminars. In the end, all that could be achieved was an agreement to hold a single workshop next year to "exchange information" on climate change.
"We are very flexible, but not at all costs," said Pieter van Geel, state secretary of the environment for the Netherlands and president of the European Union delegation. "It must be a meaningful seminar" with "a report somewhere," he added. "These are very modest things when you start a discussion."
Delegations and observer groups also criticized what they described as an effort led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the United States to hamper approval of so-called adaptation assistance. That term refers to payments that richer countries would make, mostly to poor, low-lying island countries to help them cope with the impacts of climate change.
The group that would receive the aid includes Pacific Ocean states like Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, and Caribbean nations like the Bahamas and Barbados. At a news conference here on Thursday, their representatives said rising sea levels, accelerated land erosion and more intense storms were already affecting their economic development.
But the issue was complicated by Saudi Arabia's insistence that the aid include compensation to oil-producing countries for any fall in revenues that may result from the reduction in the use of carbon fuels. The European Union, which had announced its intention to provide $400 million a year to an assistance fund, strongly opposed any such provision.
Harlan Watson, a senior member of the American delegation, would not specifically discuss the American position other than to say there are "always tos and fros in any negotiation." He described the results as "the most comprehensive adaptation package that has ever been completed," and "something that satisfied all parties."
The United States also stood virtually alone in challenging the scientific assumptions underlying the Kyoto Protocol. "Science tells us that we cannot say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided," Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for global affairs and the leader of the American delegation, said in her remarks to the conference.
At a side meeting organized by insurance companies, however, concerns were expressed about rapidly rising payments resulting from more severe and frequent hurricanes, heat waves and flooding. Representatives of major European reinsurance companies described 2004 as "the costliest year for the insurance industry worldwide" and warned that worse is likely to come.
Thomas Loster, a climate expert at the Munich Re insurance group, estimated that the cost of disasters will rise to as much as $95 billion annually, compared to an average of $70 billion over the past decade. Experts here acknowledge that extreme weather patterns have always existed, but maintain that their frequency and intensity has been increasing because of global warming.
"There is more and more evidence building up that indicates that whatever is going on is not natural and is no longer within the realm of variability," said Alden Meyer, policy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Enough research has been done, especially in the Arctic, he added, to establish that "we are starting to see the impact of human interference" and "a clear pattern of human-induced climate change."
Those sharply different perceptions led to a clash even over what language should be used in discussing disaster relief. Bush administration emissaries opposed the use of the phrase "climate change," employed since the days of the first Bush administration, in favor of "climate variability," a much more nebulous term.
Scant Progress on Post-Kyoto as Climate Talks End
Planetark.org, Dec. 20, 2004
BUENOS AIRES - UN talks on climate change ended Saturday with few steps forward as the United States, oil producers and developing giants slammed the brakes on the European Union's drive for deeper emissions cuts to stop global warming.
Although negotiators brokered an 11th-hour agreement on two items, the EU made it clear that the deal fell short of its goal to get talks rolling for after 2012, when the Kyoto protocol to cut greenhouse gases runs out.
"A lot of people are afraid of discussing the future," said EU head delegate Pieter van Geel, the Dutch environment secretary.
His deputy, Yvo de Boer, said negotiations were very tense and almost fell apart in a marathon overnight session.
The meeting of nearly 200 nations and 6000 participants started on a high note 12 days ago after Russia's ratification of the Kyoto protocol last month, allowing the treaty to take effect in February with a seven-year delay.
Kyoto will cut emissions in industrialized countries by 5 percent from 1990 levels, a first small step. The EU believes it will have to reduce its emissions by at least half by mid-century and mandatory cuts are the preferred method.
The EU came to Buenos Aires wanting to narrow differences with the United States, the source of 25 percent of the world's heat-trapping gases, and the large developing economies excluded from Kyoto like China and India.
But it soon became clear that Washington was sticking to its 2001 decision to bow out of Kyoto for fear of the impact that mandatory emissions curbs would have on economic growth. Moreover, the delegation reiterated that it would be "premature" to negotiate for after 2012.
The Argentine hosts and the EU found a compromise in the form of a seminar for 2005 for an informal exchange of information rather than talks on a post-Kyoto regime.
Some negotiators said, however, that the seminar will surely touch on the future, and that would be positive for a UN effort that languished in recent years.
Environmental groups said they were frustrated by the results.
"The outcome is certainly disappointing," said Steve Sawyer, climate expert for Greenpeace. "The efforts to move things forward on climate mitigation for reducing gas emissions are very small."
'OPEC PLAYS BIGGER ROLE'
While the United States remained intransigent on future talks, the oil-producing nations and Saudi Arabia in particular also thwarted the EU agenda.
"It would be a big mistake to put this all down to the United States. Not for the first time, the oil-producing countries play a far bigger role than anyone ever gives them credit for," said British Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett.
Negotiators had to overcome OPEC resistance to push through a partial climate aid package for developing countries, the most hurt by the rise in world temperatures linked to man-made emissions like carbon dioxide.
The developing nations also resisted the EU's agenda, aware that many Europeans believe the fast-growing economies should stop their dirty practices, like coal-intensive industry or burning forests to make way for farming.
"We are not prepared to discuss reductions in emissions," said Brazilian head delegate Everton Vieira Vargas.
The next big moves on climate change may come from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has made the issue a cornerstone of his country's G8 presidency in 2005. He will be looking to soften up US President George W. Bush on climate and also engage the big developing economies.
"We hope Blair stands firm, creates a vision for the future and, if he has to, move forward without the Bush administration," said Jennifer Morgan, director of climate change at environmental group WWF.
The Associated Press, Dec. 19, 2004
BUENOS AIRES -- Long nights of backroom wrangling and a last-minute tangle produced a deal yesterday that opens a small door to international talks about what comes "beyond Kyoto" as the world grapples with the threat of global warming.
Bush administration envoys to a UN conference, allied with some developing countries, including oil producers, blocked any more ambitious effort to cap fossil-fuel emissions after reductions mandated by the Kyoto Protocol, the climate pact rejected by President Bush, expire in 2012.
Yesterday's agreement was not a "foothold," said climate negotiator Michael Zammit Cutajar, a Maltese diplomat. "It's a finger-hold, like hanging on by your nails."
The annual climate conference approved a seminar next May, as proposed by the European Union, but one at which governments can only informally raise a range of issues, including next steps on control of carbon-dioxide and other emissions blamed for warming.
"The only thing we want to discuss is future options, and we will," said a key EU negotiator, Pieter van Geel, the Dutch environment secretary.
For their part, the Americans avoided any commitment to formally negotiate mandatory reductions in emissions, the idea Bush rejected in 2001, when he renounced Kyoto. Bush said Kyoto would harm the US economy and complained that China, India, and other poorer but industrializing nations were exempt from the 1997 pact's short-term goals.
Even this US-European compromise, brought to the open floor for routine adoption at the end of the two-week conference, was stalled for hours yesterday morning by India, China, and others.
"Developing countries and the US didn't want to see a wider opening for new commitments," Chinese delegate Gao Feng said. With Argentina's mediation, new language was inserted on the floor saying the seminar "does not open any negotiation leading to new commitments."
If the Europeans or others at next year's seminar launch discussions about a future treaty framework, US diplomats will probably ignore them. "We think it's premature," the US delegation head, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky, said last week.
Carbon dioxide, a byproduct of automobile engines, power plants, and other fossil fuel-burning industries, traps heat that otherwise would escape the atmosphere. A broad scientific consensus, endorsed by a UN-sponsored network of climatologists, holds that most of the past century's global temperature rise -- 1 degree Fahrenheit -- was probably caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Latest figures, for 2000, show that the United States accounted for 21 percent of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and the handful of other problem gases, compared with 14 percent for the 25-nation European Union. On a per-capita basis, Europeans produce only half the amount of greenhouse gases Americans do.
The Kyoto Protocol, effective next Feb. 16, established a schedule of emissions for 30 industrial countries that ratified it. By 2012 the European Union, for example, must cut emissions by 8 percent below 1990 levels, and Japan and Canada by 6 percent.
The Kyoto cutbacks are modest compared to the problem. In a report issued here last week, climatologists from the British government's Hadley Center projected that global temperatures would most likely rise by 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the late 21st century or earlier, if carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are allowed to double -- a realistic scenario.
Computer models show such unprecedentedly swift temperature rises would shift climate zones, produce more extreme weather events, and raise sea levels via the melting of land ice and thermal expansion of oceans. Impacts are already seen in the Arctic and elsewhere, scientists report.
The US delegation sought to put the focus in Buenos Aires on long-range US programs to develop cleaner-burning energy technologies. That's too little, too late, environmentalists say.