Buenos Aires – or just hot air?

As governments prepare to haggle over the implementation of greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets agreed in Kyoto last year, IPPC experts warn that existing targets will have a minimal effect and that even if far more radical action is taken, we will need to learn to live with climate change and develop ways to reduce its harmful impact.

Starting Monday 2 November, parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will discuss mechanisms and timetables for implementation of the Kyoto Protocol – an agreement for 38 industrialised nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 percent by 2010 from a 1990 baseline.

These countries currently generate 57 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but are expected to produce only 25 percent of emissions growth in the next 20 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects 1.4 degrees global warming by 2050. However, even if fully implemented, the Kyoto targets would only reduce this by 0.05 degrees over the same time period, says a recent report in Nature by a group of lead authors of the IPPC. Further, a 20 percent emissions reduction by industrialised countries would only mitigate the effects by another 0.1 degrees.

“The global number of people put at risk of hunger, water shortage or coastal flooding during the storms as a result of projected climate changes is hardly touched by the targets under discussion at Buenos Aires,” says the report. “Although, for example, an extra 23 million people could be affected by coastal storm flooding due to sea-level rise without any mitigation, perhaps one million might avoid such flooding as a result of achieving the Kyoto target.”

As well as pursuing greater emissions reductions and persuading developing countries to follow suit, the report, entitled “Adapting to the inevitable”, maintains there is more to be gained from efforts to reduce the impact of climate change by adapting to it – e.g. increasing irrigation efficiency, breeding more drought-resistant crops, and building buffer stocks of food. Reducing water demand by 5 percent would have four times the effect of reducing emissions by 30 percent, it says.

What will happen in Buenos Aires?

The Europeans appear to be approaching the Summit with a proactive attitude, with even the European-based multinational oil companies Shell and BP announcing their own emissions reduction initiatives. On the other hand, the US, which accounts for around 20 percent of global CO2 emissions, has not yet ratified the convention. In view of powerful domestic opposition to the Kyoto agreement, particularly from the car and fuel industries, the US is expected to continue to negotiate hard for options that could allow it to achieve its targets without actually reducing its own emissions.

Some of the key issues to be discussed will include: ‘carbon trading’, carbon sinks, the Clean Development Mechanism, and moves to apply targets to developing countries.

Carbon trading is a mechanism that would allow a country exceeding it’s emissions limit to buy rights to emit from countries producing less than their permitted limit. This is highly favoured by the US, which has not ruled out the possibility of achieving its entire reduction target through trading mechanisms. The idea is strongly opposed groups such as Friends of the Earth, who claim it could even result in increased global emissions. For example Russia is likely to produce less than its CO2 limit, due to the collapse of its economy, but this gain would be wiped out by another country purchasing its ‘spare emissions’ instead of taking domestic action.

Sinks are natural resources, such as forests, which absorb CO2. Some countries want the Buenos Aires summit to agree that they can pay for forests in developing countries, and offset this against their own targets, once again reducing the need for domestic action.

Clean Development Mechanism is a system which countries can contribute to their emissions targets by promoting environmentally-friendly technology in the developing world. Some countries, such as Japan, are pressing for nuclear power to qualify as clean technology under the CDM.

Developing countries currently produce 43 percent of global greenhouse gas emission, but will account for the lion’s share of emissions growth over the next 20 years, although their emissions per capita are generally much lower than those of developed countries. Here the debate will centre on whether developed countries should lead the way, and encourage and help developing countries to follow suit, or whether, as proposed by the US, reductions should be dependent on targets also being adopted by developing countries.

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