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  • Agreement reached on carbon emission cuts

[MARRAKECH] International agreement has been reached on a package of measures to counteract global warming that includes increased financial and technical support for the efforts of developing countries to move towards a “sustainable energy future”. This support will be provided by developed countries keen to offset their own carbon-generating activities.

The total package of measures contains the procedures necessary to implement the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in principle in 1997 by signatories to the UN Climate Change Convention. Meeting in the Moroccan city of Marrakech last week, ministerial representatives of these countries agreed to the operational details of the protocol, opening the way to its widespread ratification and thus its early entry into force.

A statement adopted at the end of the Marrakech meeting emphasised the potential contribution of action on climate change to sustainable development. The statement, which will be presented to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, next September, calls for more capacity building and technology innovation to combat global warming.

The statement also calls for closer co-operation between those responsible for implementing the climate conventions and for implementing separate UN conventions on biodiversity and desertification conventions. The need for — and ways of achieving — such co-operation is likely to be a key theme of the Johannesburg summit.

A positive outcome for the Marrakech meeting, which was attended by representatives of 171 governments, had been widely anticipated, following the outline agreement on implementation measures reached, after several months tense negotiations, at the previous meeting of signatories of the climate convention.

This meeting opened in The Hague last November, but was only completed in Bonn in July of this year, following an adjournment called after an abortive effort to bridge differences on climate issues between the United States and Europe.

In the intervening period, the newly-elected US President George Bush announced that the United States was pulling out of the negotiations. At that point, attention turned to the so-called ‘Umbrella Group’ of nations — namely Russia, Japan, Canada and Australia — whose support, in the absence of the United States, is now required for the agreement on reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to enter into force.

This is because the protocol becomes legally binding only after it has been ratified by at least 55 Parties to the Convention, and these must include industrialised countries representing at least 55% of the total 1990 carbon dioxide emissions from this group. The European Union says it will ratify Kyoto by 2002. But support from the Umbrella group is also needed to bring the treaty into force.

Much of the political negotiations in Marrakech focussed on the details of concessions being demanded by the members of this group in return for their support of the protocol. Russia, for example, is keen to obtain maximum leeway for selling off the “carbon credits” that it has earned by virtue of the fact that the decline in many of its traditional industries since 1990 — the date against which emissions targets are measured — has left it well below its own targets already.

At the same time, Japan and Canada have been seeking as generous an agreement as possible from their international partners to allow the soaking up carbon emissions by forests to be taken into account in judging whether they have achieved their emission targets. Negotiations on these issues continued up to the last moment in Marrakech, and resulted in various compromises.

As a result, however, those present were able to emerge with agreement on a common rulebook implementing the Kyoto targets. This specifies, for example, how to measure emissions and reductions, the extent to which carbon dioxide absorbed by carbon sinks can be counted towards such targets, how so-called ‘joint implementation’ and emissions trading systems will work, and the rules for ensuring compliance with commitments.

Some environmental groups have expressed frustration at the last minute compromises that were made to gain the support of the members of the Umbrella Group. They point out that the widespread use of trading in emission permits through a procedure known as the Clean Development Mechanism still permits a significant emission of greenhouse gases to take place.

They also emphasise that, even if the Kyoto targets are achieved, the results will in practice still only be an overall reduction of about 2 per cent in carbon emissions from 1990 levels, far from the 60 per cent reduction that many claim is needed to stabilise global warming.

Despite the shortcomings in the agreement reached in Marrakech, however, others were pointing out that the outcome of the negotiations has been one of the toughest international agreements ever reached on environmental topics.

Michael Zammit Cutajar, the Convention’s Executive Secretary, said after the meeting that its results
“send a clear signal to business, local governments and the general public that climate-friendly products, services, and activities will be rewarded by consumers and national policies alike”.

Now that the institutions and detailed procedures of the Kyoto Protocol were in place, he added, the next step would be to test their effectiveness in overseeing the 5 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries over the next decade.

Despite the positive outcome of the Marrakech meeting, a cloud of uncertainty continues to hang over whether the United States will be prepared to rejoin the process. At the end of the meeting, the Dutch Environment Minister Jan Pronk, who had headed much of the negotiations of the final text, expressed optimism that the United States would eventually do so.

In interviews with the New York Times, however, US officials at the meeting gave no sign that the Bush administration, which argues that the Kyoto Protocol is unfair as it does not include a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by developing countries such as China and India, would reconsider joining the effort. “Other countries have chosen their path, and our answer is still no,” said a senior member of the American delegation.

In a statement delivered at the closing ceremonies, Paula J. Dobriansky, the under secretary of state for global affairs, said the Bush administration was still committed to solving the problem, but in its own way and at its own pace. “Climate change is a serious issue that requires real action,” she said.

One act taken by the conference was the election of 15 members to the executive board of the Clean Development Mechanism. This is the body that has been given the task of encouraging investments by developed countries in projects in developing countries that reduce or avoid emissions, in order to receive credit against their Kyoto targets.

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