Anger at failure of UN climate talks

The failure of the UN's conference on climate change (COP6) to broker even a compromise deal has resulted in bitter recriminations, directed at both the US and the EU.

Even after a time extension and all night sessions, the failure of ministers from 185 countries to conclude a deal at the COP6, has resulted in verbal attacks on all sides, with the EU and small island nations principally blaming the US and others citing European “intransigence” as the culprit.

Last-minute attempts by the UK to broker a compromise between a tough European Union stance and the United States, with its allies Japan, Canada and Australia, failed even after the two-week long talks in The Hague were extended until 25 November. The possibility of a last-minute compromise deal, which would have excluded the US proposal to include carbon ‘sinks’ in developing nations as national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, was scuppered when the European Union, currently presided over by France, rejected it. US consent for the compromise deal had finally been achieved by UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, but was rejected by French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet who “said she was exhausted and tired and could not understand the detail and then refused to accept it,” Prescott said.

Voynet’s objection was supported by ministers from Germany, Denmark and Sweden, who also opposed the US insistence that planting forests or agricultural changes domestically be accepted as carbon ‘credits’. The compromise was eventually rejected after 36 hours of non-stop talks, during which 200 amendments, incorporated by Saudi Arabia to derail any possible deal, had to be considered. Voynet described the concessions to the US as “so unacceptable as not even worth discussing”. EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom was more diplomatic about the failure. “The negotiations were never going to be easy and in the end we simply ran out of time to resolve all the issues,” she said.

Voynet’s position was rounded on by Prescott and some environmentalists who fear that with the probable election of George W. Bush as US President, no deal will be possible on Republican manifesto). Prescott blamed the failure on Voynet, saying that “she got cold feet” over the deal, and that other European ministers had lacked the political courage to make it happen. Australian Prime Minister John Howard defended his country’s backing of the US plan and blamed the EU for the talks’ failure. “It’s all right for the Europeans who get the fortuitous benefits….In Australia’s case, the way the rules are written, if those sinks are out, we carry a disproportionate burden,” he said.

US group, the National Environmental Trust, said The Hague was “likely to have been the European nations’ best opportunity to achieve a strong climate treaty, and they decided to pass it up”. “After January, they could face a Bush administration almost certain to push for bigger loopholes. There is no excuse for having walked away,” the organisation said in a statement.

There is even talk of the Kyoto Protocol to still be implemented without the participation of the United States. Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, obliging developed nations to cut GHG emissions by an average 5% over 1990 levels by 2008-12, requires the participation of nations producing 55% of the world’s total emissions. This means that ratification could take place if the EU, with 24% of global GHG emissions, could persuade Russia, with 17%, Japan, with 8.5%, and some other emissions-important nations, such as the Ukraine, to ratify. “Since the US has taken no domestic action to combat climate change, there is nothing to lose by excluding them altogether”, said Tony Juniper UK Campaigns Director of Friends of the Earth.

A sense of disappointment was echoed by the head of the UN Environment Programme, Klaus Toepfer, who said he was “shocked and disappointed” at the outcome and the G77 group of developing countries which said the failure of the talks condemned them to more environmental turmoil. “Time is not running out. It has run out,” commented Tommy Remengesau, President-elect of Palau, one of the nations most threatened by rising sea levels. “Once again, the US has been successful with their favourite negotiating trick: in Kyoto they brought everyone down to the lowest common denominator; and now in The Hague they have moved away, leaving everyone else at the bottom,” said Greenpeace.

However, there are tentative plans for the conference to resume some time in 2001, and Wallstrom said that the EU was ready to try again.

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